Red Mandarin Dress by Qiu Xiaolong features Chief Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai police. Two cases are assigned to the inspector: finding a clever deviant serial murderer and supporting the authorities in a corruption trial. Both cases highlight the rapidly changing cultural and economic conditions in Shanghai -- the contrast between traditional restaurants and Starbucks coffee shops provides one of the cultural benchmarks. Because 1999 is the date of the first Starbucks in China, this mystery story obviously takes place recently, but the roots of the mysteries go back to the 1960s and the devastating atmosphere of the Cultural Revolution.
One dining sequence is the culmination of the book and its detective's psychological approach. He chooses a menu of "cruel dishes." The first four cold dishes: "Fried sparrow tongues, wine-immersed goose feet, stewed ox eyes, ginger-steamed fish lips." (p. 265)
Later came dancing shrimp, a dish that had already played a role earlier in the book. Live shrimp are brought to the table in a glass bowl along with a glass pot and a miniature stove. "The shrimps were immersed in a mixed sauce, but under the bowl lid, they still squirmed energetically. Within the stove there was a layer of pebbles, burning red above the charcoal at the bottom. ... In a hissing steam, the shrimps were jumping and turning red." (p. 70)
The final production of this cruel menu is a turtle being boiled alive. The slow torture of the turtle accompanies the intensifying pressure that Chen is putting on the suspected murderer. The psychological tension is heightened for the reader as well as for the suspect as the turtle struggles in a horrifyingly detailed descriptive passage.
It's one of the weirdest food themed passages I've ever experienced in a mystery story.
I wrote about another book by Qiu Xiaolong here: Dining with Exotic Policemen.