John Murdoch awakens in a hotel bathtub, suffering from amnesia. He receives a phone call from Dr. Daniel Schreber, who urges him to flee the hotel to evade a group of men who are after him. In the room, Murdoch discovers the corpse of a ritualistically murdered woman along with a bloody knife. He flees the scene, just as the group of pale men in trenchcoats (later identified as “the Strangers”) arrive.
Following clues, Murdoch learns his own name and finds out he has a wife named Emma; Police Inspector Frank Bumstead also wants Murdoch as a suspect in a series of murders committed around the city, though he cannot remember killing anybody. Pursued by the Strangers, Murdoch discovers that he has psychokinesis—the ability to alter reality at will—which the Strangers also possess, and refer to as “tuning”. He manages to use these powers to escape from them.
Murdoch explores the anachronistic city, where nobody seems to notice the perpetual nighttime. At midnight, he watches as everyone except himself falls asleep as the Strangers physically rearrange the city as well as change people’s identities and memories. Murdoch learns that he came from a coastal town called Shell Beach: a town familiar to everyone, though nobody knows how to get there, and all of his attempts to do so are unsuccessful for varying reasons. Meanwhile, the Strangers inject one of their men, Mr. Hand, with memories intended for Murdoch in an attempt to predict his movements and track him down.