Should any readers happen to be in this area, I would love to meet you in person. I’ll be signing books and doing a short reading at Book and Table, 120 North Patterson St. in Valdosta, GA on Friday the 14th of April at 7:00 and at noon Sat. the 15th. The bookstore/restaurant is run by one of my favorite authors, J. Michael Orenduff, author of the Pot Thief Mysteries. If you’re an East Coast fan of New Mexico mysteries, come meet both of us.
My delight in reading the Pot Thief books never fades. As I dive into each story, I find something cozy and familiar and yet full of surprises, a quality much like pot thief Hubie Schuze’s happy hour conversations over margaritas with his friend Susannah.
This book has the best opening I’ve read in years. It sets the tone, revealing Hubie’s sense of humor, while introducing the instigating event for the mystery immediately. “I was trying to remember if I’d ever been blindfolded before. I didn’t think I had, but the cloth over my eyes felt vaguely familiar, almost nostalgic. I couldn’t imagine why. The only images I could connect with blindfolds were kidnappings.”
Hubie is brought in this mysterious way to appraise a pot collection. In that collection, he finds something that shouldn’t be there. And the appraisal fee gets sneaked out of his pocket on the return trip. The lengths he goes to in order to get it back are clever (and illegal) and get him into trouble for something he didn’t do: kill the pot collector. An unexpected new romance results from his attempts to sort out his situation.
Orenduff does something I’ve seen one other author do successfully (Martyn V. Halm, in his Amsterdam Assassin thriller series, which in all other ways is as different from the Pot Thief series as it could be, though just as good). He inserts interludes. These are short chapters which tell a story within the story, about a personal aspect of the main character’s life. These interludes are few, well-crafted and beautiful, revealing details about life in New Mexico and showing Hubie’s appreciation of old friends and of the place he lives. They aren’t unnecessary, though it may sound as if they are. The nature of these books is such that this is the pace. This is the personality. There is suspense, but it’s suspense from the point of view of a man who has some amusing opinions that he freely shares, and who savors the taste of life, from traditional New Mexican cooking and Gruet champagne, to friendships, the scenery on Sandia peak, and the unexpected companionship of a funny-looking dog.
As always, the story is full of fascinating information about what Hubie is studying. The book he’s reading on Einstein and quantum physics plays a key role in the plot and in his thinking, as he struggles to understand the uncertainty principle and figure out who really killed the pot collector.
If you haven’t started this series yet, begin at the beginning and make friends with Hubie in The Pot Thief Who Studied Pythagoras.
Last week I reviewed the Pot Thief Who Studied Georgia O’Keefe.
I’m delighted to have the author as my guest today.
Bio: Mike Orenduff grew up in a house so close to the Rio Grande that he could Frisbee a tortilla into Mexico. A former president of New Mexico State University, he took early retirement from higher education to pursue his career as a fiction writer. His many accolades as an author include the Lefty Award for best humorous mystery, the Epic Award for best mystery or suspense e-book, and the New Mexico Book Award for best mystery or suspense fiction.
AF: You’ve been a professor at various colleges. What did you teach? Which class did you most enjoy teaching and why?
JMO: I taught philosophy (primarily logic courses) and mathematics. The mathematics courses were what are now called developmental. They used to be called remedial, but someone decided that’s politically incorrect. That may be, but remedial is a more accurate description. It is no blot on students who are not skilled at math. Good math teachers are rare in the public schools, so students often show up at college unprepared for college level math courses. My courses were a remedy. My favorite teaching experience was the pre-algebra courses I taught at Central Wyoming College. Many of my students were from the Wind River Reservation. The most rewarding thing about teaching is not standing at the blackboard writing the steps of some arcane proof. It is having a student say, “I thought I couldn’t do math. But now I can.”
AF: What’s your favorite place you’ve lived outside of New Mexico? Could you share an anecdote or memory from that place?
JMO: I lived in La Serena, Chile for a summer while my wife was teaching at La Universidad de la Serena. It was an idyllic life. I shopped each day at the market for food and fresh flowers, both of which were waiting when my wife arrived home from work. La Serena is in the northern desert area of Chile, so it was like New Mexico except it’s on the Pacific Ocean. Albuquerque with a beach. And even more Spanish being spoken. Two of my favorite memories from northern Chile are seeing the southern cross in the beautiful clear skies and being stranded in a small fishing village twenty miles north of La Serena after travelling there in a collectivo (a taxi into which six people are crammed to go to a place with no bus service). It was easy to find a collectivo in La Serena, a large city. But Las Casetas was a village and had no collectivos. Hence, no means to return. As we stood by the road wondering what to do, a man in a small Japanese pickup pulled over and asked us if we wanted to go to La Serena. We crowded into a bench seat designed for two people and had a delightful conversation with him on the ride south. I offered to pay him. He declined. I offered to at least pay for his gasoline. He declined again, saying he was going there anyway, so no extra gas was being burned. He told us about his wife whom he obviously adored. When we arrived in La Serena, I finally coaxed him into accepting money by holding out enough pesetas to buy flowers and saying, “This is for flowers for your wife.”
AF: Your books make me want to pay more attention to very old Native pottery. What would be the best places to go for a (legal) pottery tour of New Mexico?
JMO: Of course the shops and museums in Santa Fe are the places most people associate with ancient Native pottery, but my favorite place is Western New Mexico University in Silver City. Their museum has the largest collection of prehistoric Mimbres Mogollon pottery and artifacts in the world, including pottery and artifacts of the Upland Mogollon, Casas Grandes, Salado, and Anasazi. And as an added benefit, you can tour the Gila Cliff Dwelling just north of town and see artifacts in situ and where the people lived who made them.
AF: You share my love of T or C. I noticed that every place you mention there is real. What about the places in Albuquerque? I found myself guessing that every location except Hubie’s shop might also be a real place, but I seldom dine out in Albuquerque so I’m not sure. Are they? What’s behind your decision to use actual places rather than fictitious versions of them?
JMO: You guessed it. Every place is real. The only fictional ones are Hubie’s shop and Dos Hermanas. All the other places are real, even Sharice’s condo. Georgia O’Keeffe said that she preferred painting flowers instead of models because flowers, “are cheaper and they don’t move.” I prefer real places because it’s easier to describe them than to make up new ones. And I like to give them free publicity.
AF: What made you choose the White Sands Missile Range for Hubie’s latest pot thieving adventure?
JMO: There were several reasons. Perhaps the most interesting one is a real event that happened there is 2001. A man hunting Oryx found a Chupadero black-on-white water jug dating back to around 1300. Where else could that happen? Especially the Oryx part.
AF: Why Georgia O’Keeffe in the title?
JMO: After starting out with a bunch of dead white males with no connection to New Mexico, I finally tumbled to the realization that I should use people with NM connections such as D. H. Lawrence. Then I decided a woman in the title would be good. And I chose O’Keeffe because she is strongly identified with NM but also because I had a small personal connection with her. In 1985, I was serving as the academic vice president at West Texas State University, known as West Texas State Normal College when Georgia O’Keeffe taught there from 1916 to 1918. We were celebrating the 75th anniversary of the school’s founding and looking for something to make the event special. I decided we should ask O’Keefe to grant us the right to make prints of a painting she had done while teaching there and allow us to sell those prints to fund scholarships. I gave the task of approaching Ms. O’Keeffe to my wife, whose charm and grace were best suited to the task. And it helped that she is also an artist and an art historian. O’Keeffe granted her request. So Georgia O’Keeffe helped me raise scholarship funding and also inspired me to write the latest book in the series.
AF: Who are your favorite mystery writers? What is it that makes them stand out?
JMO: In no particular order and with apologies to the many others whom I like but didn’t pop to mind: Simon Brett, Michael Bond, John Mortimer, Mary Jane Maffini, Aaron Elkins, Carl Hiaasen, Leann Sweeney, Lawrence Block (but only his Bernie Rhodenbarr series), and Tim Hallinan (especially his Junior Bender series). What makes them stand out is clever humor.
AF: Did you know you were going to write a series when you wrote the first Pot Thief book? Which book in the series was the most challenging for you to write and why?
JMO: I knew it was to be series, but I didn’t know the titles would all start with The Pot Thief Who Studied…. In fact, the working title of the second one was The Pot Thief Who Gazed at the Stars. What was I thinking?
The first was the most challenging because I had to create everything from scratch. The rest somewhat less so, but I try to have the characters grow and develop as people do in real life.
AF: Any idea what the pot thief will study next?
JMO: Edward Abbey. Like Hubie (and me), he was a graduate of the University of New Mexico.
AF: One of my favorite writers—and a good match with Hubie. I look forward to it.
This is not an interstate kind of a story; it’s a back road drive with a raconteur at the wheel. There’s a wonderful pot in a remote place, and it takes a bit of a hike and some excavation to find it. Brush off another layer, and there it is, an intact marvel of original workmanship. The old pots which the narrator, Hubie Schuze, admires were made by hand, not on a wheel, and their shape shows it. Not perfect—and not meant to be. That’s part of their character. This book is not shaped like a standard mystery novel, either. Don’t expect it to be. Just ride the back road. Hubie knows where he’s going (though you may wonder about that at times).
The prologue takes off like a rocket. Then, during the first few chapters, new readers may go through what I’ll call “orientation to Hubie,” getting used to the flow of his entertaining and often educational ramblings on topics historical, artistic, culinary, and unclassifiable. (Established fans of the series already enjoy this as much as solving the mysteries.) If you’re new to the Pot Thief and decide to start here, don’t worry, keep reading. Once Hubie gets out in the desert to illegally “rescue” an ancient pot, the story, his character, the setting and his deep reverence for the artifacts he finds and sells come together into a lively, colorful tale that’s both a clever mystery caper and a sweet, delightfully off-beat love story. There’s a lot of wordplay, for fans of that type of wit. However, the humor I liked most in this book was that which came authentically from characters and situations, and there’s plenty of it. Hubie’s sincere and awkward attempt to put his girlfriend at ease in a delicate situation is hilarious, all the more so because it comes from his heart. A sudden turn of events near the end is so perfectly timed and phrased for comic effect, I think my neighbors heard me laugh when I read it.
The New Mexico landscape and locations—from Albuquerque to Truth or Consequences to the vast emptiness of the White Sands Missile Range—are portrayed well. Hubie’s idiosyncratic meanderings are part of the New Mexico feel of the book. I can easily see him in the mini-park in the median in Truth or Consequences across from Black Cat Books and Rio Bravo Fine Art. I can’t decide if he would get on my nerves or amuse me if I sat with him—probably both—but he fits perfectly. (There seem to be a lot of smart, eccentric, single, middle-aged men in T or C.) Orenduff has created a unique character in Hubie, and his own style of mystery—intelligent, non-violent, and funny, with the murder aspect secondary to other puzzles. The red herrings are effective, the clues are laid well, the solution is surprising, and the end is satisfying.
If you haven’t yet discovered the earlier books in the series and want to start at the beginning, the titles, in order, are:
The Pot Thief Who Studied Pythagoras
The Pot Thief Who Studied Ptolemy
The Pot Thief Who Studied Escoffier
The Pot Thief Who Studied Einstein
The Pot Thief Who Studied D.H. Lawrence
The Pot Thief Who Studied Billy the Kid
The Pot Thief Who Studied Georgia O’Keefe (release date: Jan. 26, 2016)
Next week I’ll have an interview with the author, J. Michael Orenduff.
There is no sub-genre within the mystery genre that could classify this book, and I mean that as a compliment. Pot thief and pottery shop owner Hubie Schuze is so unlike any other protagonist in a mystery series, I can’t compare this to other books and say “it’s like X.” It’s not.
So what is it like? Albuquerque.
I suspect Hubie might cringe at the phrase “Keep Albu quirky,” but it’s not a bad way to introduce him and his way of looking at the world and loving his city. Orenduff has a knack for describing people with a few clear images that pick out their defining peculiarities, positive or just plain odd, and this seems to be integral to Hubie’s point of view. He sees people as they are—and sees himself as he is, too, with humor and humility despite some strong opinions. His delightful digressions are as essential to the flavor of the book as seasonings are to a good meal. One of his rambles is on the benefits and pleasures of walking in the city compared to driving, and it fit with the way I felt while reading. I had such fun being in the moment with Hubie and his friends that I forgot to try to figure out whodunit.
Hubie figures it out, of course, and the end is surprising. I wouldn’t have seen that coming even if I had been trying to solve the crime. Don’t let my drifting with the Tao of Hubie make you think this book is unstructured. It isn’t. Multiple intriguing subplots—adventures that are sometimes humorous and sometimes simply human—are interwoven with the mystery plot.
Hubie’s capacity for friendship and generosity is on equal footing with his inclination to break a few laws. It’s this combination of rogue and good guy that makes him so engaging. The acts of kindness as well as the minor crimes Hubie commits while solving a major one kept me looking at the scenery, walking, appreciating every step of the way.
My interview with J. Michael Orenduff will follow my review of the newest book in the series, The Pot Thief Who Studied Georgia O’Keefe. I’ve had the pleasure of reading it early, before the ARCs come out. Keep an eye out for that review and interview in the upcoming months. Meanwhile, get into the flow with Hubie with this first Pot Thief book.