Lawrence Block’s Bernie Rhodenbarr series is one of my favorites. I like how Bernie’s thievery gets him in trouble and fuels the plots. I like the ingenious ways he finds to get into places where he shouldn’t be. I especially like how he sometimes uses his talent for picking locks to do a good deed. But as much as I enjoy those books, I was never comfortable with Bernie being a thief. He was too nice to be a thief. And his lone excuse – that the thrill was addictive – never rung true.
When I started the Pot Thief series, I knew my protagonist, Hubie, needed a flaw. And because I wanted to write humorous mysteries, the flaw had to be something capable of generating laughs. Crimes are generally not funny. I couldn’t imagine Hubie and Susannah, his sidekick, drinking margaritas and joking about his being a pickpocket or a peeping tom.
So I tried to think of a criminal activity that could do for Hubie what thieving did for Bernie but without as much stigma. And the answer came from my setting – New Mexico. Digging up old pots has been common in the Land of Enchantment ever since the U.S. stole it from Mexico. Only in the past few decades have we begun to question the ethics of the practice. Hubie, like Bernie, offers excuses. But whereas Bernie pleads addiction, Hubie bases his excuse on the victims rather than the perpetrator. The ancient potters want us to dig up their pottery and display it. In doing this we honor them. He claims to know this because he is also a potter and feels a kinship with them.
Rationalization? Maybe. But he is such an earnest fellow that even those who disagree with him can’t feel much enmity against him. I’ve even had professional archaeologist say that they understand Hubie’s point of view even if they don’t accept it.
Here’s an excerpt that typifies Hubie’s point of view:
In addition to selling traditional Native American pottery, I’m also a pot thief. I don’t like the term, and I don’t think it’s a fair description, but that’s what I am. At least that’s what I’ve been since the 1980’s when Congress passed the Archaeological Resources Protection Act extending the definition of thievery to cover buried pots on public lands—and who knows more about thievery than Congress?
Prior to that, it was legal to dig up old pots for fun and profit. Those of us who did the digging were once called something a lot more exotic: we were known as ‘treasure hunters’. It was an honest profession, even an honorable one. Most of what we know about the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome we owe to treasure hunters who unearthed their artifacts. If it were not for that most famous of treasure hunters, Howard Carter, Tut would still be under the desert sand and his funereal loot would not be touring around the world for us to enjoy in all its splendor.
Selling old pots is quite lucrative providing you don’t get caught digging them up, but that’s only part of the appeal. The real reward is in the thrill of the find, the sudden connection with the ancient past when you hold in your hands a pot that has lain unknown and untouched for a thousand years. Carter himself said it best when, after years of searching, he got his first glimpse of Tutankhamen: “The youthful Pharaoh was before us at last. An obscure and ephemeral ruler had reentered the world of history.”
Of course, I’ve never dug up anything quite as significant as an Egyptian Pharaoh, but I have brought some beautiful pottery back into the world of history and profited handsomely from doing so. I don’t apologize for digging them up. They belong to whomever finds them, and I refuse to let Congress make me out a thief. It’s more than just being denied the fruit of my labor as a digger, more than merely losing the benefits of my talent for reading the land and knowing where to look for artifacts. Sure I like the money, and there’s nothing else I want to do to earn a living. But what’s just as important—maybe even moreso—is the spiritual connection I feel with those ancient potters. It’s like reaching back through time.
When I finally feel the cool smooth clay beneath the sand, I’m touching the hand of the potter.
I know why she was there, because I found my way to that same rise or that sheltered dune using knowledge of the land she possessed a thousand years before I was born. I’m holding the pot she took with her to carry water or gather juniper berries. When I find that pot, I find her, someone like me who knew the feel of wet clay between her fingers.
Mike Orenduff grew up in a house so close to the Rio Grande that he could Frisbee a tortilla into Mexico. While in graduate school at the University of New Mexico, he worked during the summer as a volunteer teacher at one of the nearby pueblos. After receiving his M.A. at New Mexico and his Ph.D. at Tulane, he became a university professor. He went on to serve as President of New Mexico State University. He took early retirement from higher education to write his award-winning Pot Thief murder mysteries which combine archaeology and philosophy with humor and mystery. Among his many awards are the “Lefty” national award for best humorous mystery, two “Eppies” for the best eBook mysteries and the New Mexico Book of the Year Award.
His books have been described by The Baltimore Sun as “funny at a very high intellectual level and deliciously delightful” and by The El Paso Times as “the perfect fusion of murder, mayhem and margaritas.” Learn more at: http://www.thepotthief.blogspot.com.
(The Killer Nashville Guest Blog series is coordinated by KN Executive Director Beth Terrell (http://www.elizabethterrell.com/). To be a part of this series, contact Beth at email@example.com.)