Hubert Schuze returns as the snappy protagonist in “The Pot Thief Who Studied Calvin,” the 10th installment of J. Michael Orenduff’s long-popular “Pot Thief” murder-mystery series.
A pot thief and a potter, he is prominent in the new installment as the owner of Spirits in Clay, a store in Albuquerque’s Old Town that buys and sells pots. Hubert is knowledgeable about all things pottery.
When Hubert’s nephew Tristan, (actually, a first cousin twice removed), brings him a pot that has neither been thrown nor glazed, Hubert is curious how that was possible. Tristan says he made it using a 3D printer. He explains the process to Hubert.
Tristan made nine duplicates, giving one of them to Uncle Hubie.
The pot is the central subject. Halfway through the book, the pot is linked to the death of a crypto-Jewish owner of a mine in La Reina, a fictional town in northern New Mexico. Was he murdered or was his death accidental when he drank poison from the pot?
Orenduff said in a phone interview that he left the man’s death “deliberately vague. It looks like it’s going to be accidental, but there’s no way to know for certain. I wanted to have a murder-mystery with some question left of what really happened,” he said.
Orenduff accomplishes that objective while keeping the mood suspenseful.
The Calvin in the title is not John Calvin, the French theologian during the Reformation who espoused the doctrine of predestination, that God knows who is entering heaven. Nor is it the Calvin of “Calvin and Hobbes” daily comic strip fame that ran for 10 years.
It is, in fact, Ross Calvin, an Episcopal priest and author, who came to New Mexico seeking improved health. His 1934 book “Sky Determines, An Interpretation of the Southwest,” is considered a classic, if a forgotten one, of New Mexico literature.
After quoting John Calvin, Hubert shifts his thoughts to Ross Calvin’s book: “Now I was wondering, to what extent, if any, my life had been determined by the New Mexico sky, the state’s most dominant feature, infinitely large and impossibly blue.” Readers can ponder that, too.
A number of other intriguing subthemes pepper the book. In one, Hubert and his fiancé Sharice’s are preparing for the birth of their baby.
And planning their wedding.
Sharice’s father, Collin, questions on racial grounds, whether they should get married. According to Hubert, Collin “explained to me in black and white that he opposes our forthcoming marriage. The black and white in this case being that Sharice is Black and I am white.”
Hubert isn’t concerned. He knows he and Sharice are committed to each other.
Readers can take pleasure in Orenduff’s constructs of light conversational and descriptive asides. Here’s one, with Hubert considering the cause of Tristan’s chubbiness: “… he’s now in his 30s, and the layer (of baby fat he had in his 20s) is still here, so there must be another explanation, and I suspect it’s the chicharrónes and cerveza he lives on.” Yet women find him irresistible despite the absence of movie star looks.
Hubert flips a mirror onto himself: “Unfortunately, girls have generally been resisting me without difficulty since I went through puberty 38 years ago.” He’s got a strong self-image.
Orenduff said in the interview that Hubert’s personality hasn’t changed much over the 10 “Pot Thief” volumes.
“He’s got a lot of interests. He’s a thinker. He’s not very interested in current events. He doesn’t own a TV. He’s not on Facebook. He’s harmless, a little bit eccentric. People seem to like him,” the author said.
In the “Calvin” installment, Hubert argues that “thief” is merely a technicality, one applied by the Bureau of Land Management. Federal law allows him to keep a piece of turquoise or a rusty barbed wire found on public land, he points out. But a 1,000-year-old clay pot? He must turn in to the BLM for study. Some pots he’s hidden away, Hubert says, are “rescued.”
It’s enjoyable to watch Orenduff’s characters switch gears, from serious to playful. Example: Hubert is describing Whit, his Albuquerque police detective friend: “His eyes didn’t light up. I’ve never actually seen anyone’s light up. I don’t think it’s possible. …There are no phosphorescent cells in the eyes.”
The book is such a fun read.