By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
A.W. Hill’s thriller, Nowhere-Land, featuring the L.A. private investigator and spiritual shaman, Stephan Raszer, may be the first truly 21st-century mystery I’ve read. It feels new, radical in the way that the movie Blade Runner felt new. Just as Blade Runner offered a vision of a future in which technology had blurred the most basic questions (i.e., Is that chick human or not?), so too does Nowhere-Land stumble our brains, as the Jehovah’s Witnesses who drift in and out of this story might say, by suggesting other dystopian scenarios taking place not in a distant future but rather present time.
Hill has written an astute thriller, focused on religions and cults and the way they’ve been used to master civilizations. But Nowhere-Land is also about what might be called the very new cults of Internet game playing, and how role-playing games move from the Web to the real world, from “make-believe” to more chaotic fictions that can spawn terror when dark minds gain control.
This is the third book Hill has written featuring Raszer, a P.I. who specializes in using his psychic skills to rescue victims of cults. In Nowhere-Land, Scotty Darrell, a devotee of an RPG called The Gauntlet, has gone missing — he’s been given “extreme unction” or died to the world and is beyond recall — and it’s Raszer’s job to find him. At the same time, a young member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Katy Endicott, is abducted and her friends murdered, and the elders of the sect hire Raszer to find her. Both stories converge around scenarios laid out by The Gauntlet’s games masters and two former American soldiers who served in Iraq.
Though the story starts in that quintessential L.A. burb, Asuza, where the abduction takes place, it moves quickly to Taos, and then the Middle East, the “nowhere” land where Turkey and Syria bleed into Iran and Iraq (bleed being the right word). And it’s here, in the remotest regions of the Really Old World, that Nowhere-Land begins to feel less the conventional mystery than the trippy product of opium dream.
If the book at times reads like an amalgam of influences — Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, Huck Finn on dope, Harrison Ford on a quest to rescue the girl, Dexter Filkins embedded with Special Forces, Philip Marlowe cracking wise, Harold Bloom on World Religion, well, who cares? It’s all so skillfully woven, and one learns amazing things — for instance, that the Jehovah’s Witnesses (and presumably others who thirst for the End Time) believe that only 144,000 souls will be beamed up during The Rapture. (Who knew there’d be so few?)
But then Hill is as convincing writing about Cybelian castration cults and the black stone of the Ka’ba as he is in describing Kurdish towns and a war-blasted landscape. You buy the notion of conspiracy fueling events, the idea that a massive transnational human-trafficking operation has snatched vulnerable kids and sent them, retooled, back out into society to do its bidding as sleeper agents. The initiates look like ordinary kids: All have the three necessary qualities of “physical beauty, native intelligence, and a certain malleability.” As someone says, “Any of them, without raising the slightest alarm, might pass through the gates of the Magic Kingdom with a bomb strapped to their belly.”
It’s a wild ride of a story: Blackwater mercenaries and spiritual apparitions occupy the same paragraphs. “I’m starting to pixilate,” someone says, walking through an opium field. I felt the same, but that’s only because Hill keeps everything moving and because he also keeps changing his focus — grounding the story in violent action and then sending it off into an airy place, where transmogrified souls become canine guides and the dead don’t stay that way.
As much as Nowhere-Land feels new, it relies at heart on the old Chandlerian idea of The White Knight. Raszer (pronounced razor) is not an existential loner like Marlowe. He has an assistant who’s as perky and loyal as Perry Mason’s Della, a daughter to whom he is devoted, and enough money and influence to conjure up black helicopters for his rescue when he needs them, not to mention some very up-to-the minute technology.
Yet he’s a perfect narrator for this story — intelligent, knowledgeable, always conjecturing, almost feminine in some ways, sensitive, devout, both heroic and half-defeated. He’s on a big quest. He knows that religion is transforming the world, that it’s being used insidiously. He understands what terrorists want, which is to make us very afraid. As Raszer says, “Whenever collective fear can be induced and chaotic factors set in play, they regain control of the game.”
In Nowhere-Land, the world feels like it’s in a pre-Apocalyptic state: There’s a war on for its soul. You could say it’s a story of our time.