Chinese Cooking for Diamond Thieves (fiction)
by Dave Lowry
As someone with an abiding interest in Chinese cuisine and, and Asian martial arts, you'd think I'd be predestined to love Chinese Cooking for Diamond Thieves, a novel that centres around Tucker, a twenty-year old college dropout, and involves a road trip, a chance meeting with a girl at a highway rest stop and a subsequent halting romance, a diamond theft, Chinese gangsters, and a female FBI agent with much time on her hands. But all this adds up to a slight plot, little more than than a series of excuses to edify the reader on what appear to be the author's twin passions: Chinese cuisine and Asian martial arts.
There is nothing slight though about Tucker. He's an 'interesting' guy (and at least two characters an the book say as much). An exponent of the martial art xing-yi, a chef (Chinese cuisine), fluent in Mandarin (with a knowledge of other Chinese dialects), and an authority on Chinese culture, Tucker's chief role in the story is to educate us on these topics. Tucker, the offbeat Sinophile, lives his life according to a series of self-invented pithy rules, which appear as epigrams at the beginning of each chapter and are alluded to throughout the book. "Rule #72: "Never depend upon luck, but don't ignore how really valuable it is," being one of the better ones on the sagacity scale, "Rule #60: You can go home again, but the place might be slightly dusty," being one of the worst.
Unfortunately in an effort to give Tucker a youthful hipster voice Lowry has turned him into a full-time wise guy, a smartarse, with a constant tone of self deprecation or jocular condescension. And it is not just Tucker. Corinne, the romantic interest, talks just like a milder version of Tucker. As Tucker-lite, she is his perfect match. What Tucker does, may be interesting; Tucker himself is not, and about halfway through the story I stopped believing or caring about him.
In Chinese Cooking for Diamond Thieves you'll learn much about Chinese food, particularly about the differences between American Chinese food and 'real' Chinese food. You'll learn what goes on in a Chinese restaurant kitchen (same as in any restaurant kitchen apparently), martial arts, and Chinese culture. And Lowry can write: "January in New Hampshire is cold. Which is like saying the surface of the sun is hot. The cold doesn't just sit there over New Hampshire during winter. It's active; silent but lively–and vicious in its own sneaky way." As well there are fight scenes so clearly related they could well be instructions, and some beautifully penned cooking scenes.
In the final wash, common interests or not, I didn't love Chinese Cooking for Diamond Thieves, though it has plenty of amusing moments. It's a quirky story, an entertaining caper but there is too much invested in a lead character who fails to genuinely engage. The plot–which is devoid of mystery, and light on suspense, is not strong enough to compensate.