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, 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.
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. 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.
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.
Causes A.W. Hill Supports