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.
NOWHERE-LAND: A STEPHAN RASZER INVESTIGATION | By A. W. HILL | Counterpoint | 469 pages | $25
Judith Freeman is the author of, most recently, The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Women He Loved. A.W. Hill will read from Nowhere-Land on Thurs., June 25 at Book Soup at 7 p.m.
Excerpt from Nowhere-Land:
In all likelihood, Katy Endicott was as dead as Johnny Horn. He knew the odds and had seen the forgone conclusion etched on Detective Aquino’s face. No ransom note, no cat-and-mouse with the press or the cops, no grainy videotape of the victim pleading for her life. And if she were dead, pursuing her ghost would still be costly. There would be more victims — there always were — and always the chance that one of them would be him. And for what purpose? The girl’s father was gone, and Raszer’s prospective employers did not inspire a great deal of passion for the quest.
And so he had to ask himself again: What is it I’m after? Why should I cross that bridge? By any standard, it was an ugly case, maybe the ugliest he’d taken since the turn of the millennium. Given the shakiness of his psyche, did he really need this?
The answer, which came with his last drag on the cigarette, was as prefigured as the fractal pattern of the opposing shoreline, and, like most everything about Raszer, it came in shadow and light.
As a dog senses the presence of bad spirits, Raszer sensed that behind events like Katy Endicott’s abduction, behind inexplicable acts of malice great and small, there was often to be found evidence of grander malfeasance. Highway detours, erected in the dead of night by an adversary wilier than the Coyote. The odds against the innocent and guileless in this world weren’t a matter of “natural selection”— they’d been set by a power whose abiding interest lay in seeing that the game was fixed.
In its service, this power enlisted sociopaths, tyrants, and all those with great amounts to lose if the fix were off. Raszer knew this power couldn’t be vanquished; it was part and parcel of the world. But he hoped that by learning its name, he might obtain some leverage over it. The trouble was, the name kept changing. No sooner had he held it on his tongue than it was lost to him, forgotten like a dream that dissipates upon waking.
This was the genius of all conspiracies and cabals: The links they forged through a transient common purpose dissolved as soon as the fatal blow was struck. You could try to pin it on the Bilderbergs or the Trilaterals, you could aim from right or left, but the true Puppet Masters were beyond ideology and evasive as eels. And yet — Raszer was convinced — some resonance of their original sin must remain, some trace of the secret name whispered when their knives were first raised. Where there was design, there had to be evidence of its craft. Common felony left evidence that police agencies were quite good at following. But crimes of soul theft and subversion were of a different order, and that, Raszer knew, was why Silas Endicott had sought him out.
An errant ray of western light struck an outcropping on the mountainside east of the trestle, illuminating the possibility that just once, as payment for the services he rendered, he would find himself in another country, one where there was no market in souls, where poets stood taller than plunderers, and young girls were left in peace to blossom like orchids.
In that alterworld would be his house, his daughter, the women and men he loved. It would not look much different, and humans would still be far from gods. But the fix would be off, and there would be no profit in dominion. He crushed out the cigarette, got back into the Avanti, and turned the wheels toward the East Fork Bridge.
Further reading from the Weekly Literary Supplement:
"How Fiction Works: King James and the Battle for the Novel," by Nathan Ihara
"Geoff in London, Interview in Absentia," by Tom Christie
"Henry Bay’s America: An Excerpt From The Enthusiast," by Charlie Haas
"Wet Metal: An Excerpt From Blame," by Michelle Huneven
"The Calm: An Excerpt From Silver Lake," by Peter Gadol
"Publishing Your Novel Online," by Alan Rifkin