(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

Late one September night, a caravan crossed a dried riverbed and approached Aqsu from the direction of Kashgar. The members of the party were Dr. Liu, a wealthy and cultured Chinese merchant who had hired the caravan; seven Europeans, including one woman, whom he had permitted to join it; and a dozen or more Turki porters. The Europeans had been forced to leave Kashgar because of disturbances in Sinkiang Province. Before them lay an arduous, danger-filled journey of two thousand miles eastward to Shanghai.

Their troubles started early, at Aqsu. Local authorities mysteriously imprisoned the two young geologists, Wildenbruch and von Wald, the German and the Austrian. Two others were detained as hostages, the huge Russian Serafimov and the scarred, wiry Belgian, Goupilliere. The remaining three were permitted to move on with Dr. Liu, but wealthy de la Scaze developed a fever and also stayed behind. His young and beautiful Spanish wife went on with the caravan, as did Layeville, the handsome English explorer. Layeville, inured to hardship, withstood imperturbably the rigors of desert heat and distance. The camels were less enduring; and finally, with only four of them left, the party was forced to halt. Fortunately, two caravans soon came into view, one headed eastward and the other toward Tibet. Dr. Liu and Olivia de la Scaze joined the former; but Layeville, to their astonishment, turned back toward Tibet. After weeks of travel, his caravan, misled by a treacherous Tibetan, became hopelessly lost. Among the icy peaks which symbolized something remotely beckoning and unattainable, Layeville calmly awaited the experience he had been half-consciously seeking—death.

Back in Aqsu the hulking Russian exile began his interminable wait in the crowded caravanserai. Patient at first, Serafimov soon began to be tortured by physical desire. Hearing of a Russian prostitute who was supposed to possess wit and elegance, he went to her apartment, but she rejected him. Emotional and impulsive, Serafimov daily sank deeper into melancholy brooding. Soon his frustration found an outlet in hatred and jealousy of his cleverer fellow hostage. Eventually, he realized what he had to do—and one dark night, after Goupilliere had slipped out to visit Madame Tastin, Serafimov awoke and followed him.

Goupilliere had an unsavory past. Scheming and unscrupulous, his unusual beauty had allowed him to prey on women, robbing them of their virtue and jewels. Murder was added to the dark pattern of his...

(The entire section is 1024 words.)