Briefly, von Harbou’s novel comprises ten chapters and a sort of epilogue. In chapter one, the German architect Michael Fürbringer accepts a peculiar commission to build a tomb for the wife of a wealthy Indian rajah. Chapter two follows Fürbringer’s journey to India and his troubled first night in the rajah’s palace. In chapter three, the rajah takes Fürbringer on a day trip to inspect the proposed site for the tomb, and along the way, the rajah expresses a lot of negative feelings for India. In chapter four, the Fürbringer discusses his preliminary plans with the rajah, who drops the bomb that the tomb is actually intended for his adulterous wife, who is still alive. The text never states explicitly that he wants to entomb her alive, but he certainly is planning her death. Fürbringer is appalled and demands his release from the commission, but the rajah fears the Fürbringer will attempt to interfere with the his plans, and Fürbringer becomes the rajah’s prisoner.
In chapter five, Fürbringer sets off on a nightmarish expedition around the palace at night to find possible avenues of escape. Along the way, he thinks he sees his wife and chases after her. In the sixth chapter, Fürbringer befriends a serving girl named Miriam; she speaks German, and she reveals that Fürbringer’s wife really is a “guest” in the palace. The seventh chapter puts the main story on hold while Fürbringer and the prince go shopping for jewels with which to ornament the proposed tomb, but in chapter eight, Fürbringer and his wife, Irene, are reunited, and the reader gets a lot of exposition about how she got there. In the ninth chapter, the rajah hosts a dinner party, which actually ends with Miriam's murder, and the tenth chapter follows Fürbringer’s and his wife’s flight from the evil rajah’s clutches.
The epilogue ties up some loose ends, but leaves others unresolved.
All in all, Joe May made a good choice. The story is classic escapist stuff, perfect for the movies. Furthermore, it offers the possibility of many attractive production values, including exotic locations, a labyrinthine palace on a lake, elephants, legions of servants, dancing girls, images of various Hindu gods and goddess, ghostly apparitions, and a pit full of hungry tigers—not to mention a character with the irresistibly exotic name, “Ramigani.”
And yet, the structure of the book is not a good fit for a motion picture. To keep the reader in suspense, Thea von Harbou tells the story entirely from the architect’s point of view. Together, the reader and the architect have to evaluate events and characters to determine what’s really happening and who’s telling the truth. Several episodes are red herrings that provide color and atmosphere but do not advance the story. Also, the plot contains some conspicuous omissions: We never meet the prince’s faithless wife or her lover. Worse, Irene, the all-important architect’s wife, does not step onto the page until the eighth chapter.