Where art meets life – and death

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Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

Affable, witty protagonist Hubie Schuze returns in the eighth installment of J. Michael Orenduff’s popular “Pot Thief” murder mystery series.

The latest, “The Pot Thief Who Studied Edward Abbey,” has Hubie teaching a six-week, noncredit studio class in Anasazi pottery methods at the University of New Mexico.

How odd, Hubie thinks out loud, that UNM would hire a person to instruct students “how New Mexico’s ancient potters made the works I illegally dig up and sell in my shop in Albuquerque’s Old Town.”

He had been selling pots back when he was a “treasure hunter,” before federal law declared pot-hunting an illegal enterprise.

The central subject is the mysterious death of Ximena Sifuentes, one of Hubie’s students. Later, we learn Sifuentes cannot hear or speak.

Her death occurs in an art gallery where she has been posing as a nude model for an artist-professor. She’s wrapped in a plaster cast. When the plaster is removed, she falls to the floor, dead.

Hubie, himself a suspect in the crime, carries on his own investigation, parallel to what the police are doing.

Braided through the book are a host of brief, offbeat secondary discussions on myriad subjects. Some discussions may be related to the murder, such as the alignment of faculty members in the art department’s nasty internal politics. A single conversation can capture the politics, the professors’ personalities, their nicknames, their looks, and even their thoughts on art history.

In one instance, Hubie tells Jollo Bakkie, a female art faculty member, of his admiration for a group of paintings. He asks whether she painted them.

He got this physical reaction: “She looks like she just sucked on a lemon. Which went with her wide face, oval body and stubby legs. She had to be the Gnome,” Hubie is thinking.

Bakkie’s snippy retort is that if Hubie likes the paintings, he doesn’t know much about art. Hubie replies that he knows what he likes.

Orenduff also draws readers’ attention to subjects unrelated to the art world, among them equal opportunity, the etymology of the word “lump” and romance.

There’s the growing relationship between Hubie, who is white, and Sharice, who is black. Will romance lead to marriage? Sharice’s father hopes not.

There are Hubie’s chats over margaritas with his best friend, Susannah. Some propel the main plot. Some are delightfully descriptive, like Hubie thinking about Susannah, a rancher girl from Willard. He observes that she’s “fresh, energetic and blunt, with the kind of outdoorsy beauty you expect to see on the face of someone who rides a horse named Buttermilk.” What jars him is that she masters convoluted intellectual theories. Digressions like that will put a smile on your face.

Orenduff, the author, was a student at the University of New Mexico, receiving a master’s degree in philosophy. The fictional Hubie was a UNM undergrad who studied anthropology. The real Abbey was also a UNM alumnus.

“I didn’t know he attended UNM until after I started doing research on the book. I really enjoyed using Abbey in the plot, because I got to read some of his books I hadn’t read before and reread what I had read,” Orenduff said.

“He sort of single-handedly started the radical environmental movement with that book,” Orenduff said, referring to “The Monkey Wrench Gang.”

Orenduff said his attempt to inject lightness into his novels is inspired by several mystery writers, among them the late Lawrence Sanders, especially in his Archy McNally series.

Orenduff is working on the ninth installment in the “Pot Thief” series, with Los Alamos scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer as the title character.

His 2010 book, “The Pot Thief Who Studied Einstein,” won a prestigious Left Coast Crime (Lefty) Award for Most Humorous Mystery.

Before Orenduff became a writer, he was in higher education. One of his positions was president of New Mexico State University from 1995 to 1998.

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