Ever since the Berlin Wall came tumbling down, the entertainment industry’s struggled to find bad guys. Aliens, drug dealers, terrorists, capitalists, philatelists—just kidding. At one point, South Africans were all the rage. If Joss Ackland wasn’t in your action movie, there wasn’t a bad guy (despite a dishonorable mention in the 10 Best/ Worst South African accents in movies). Recently, there’s been a shift towards North Koreans (they cray-zee) and the U.S. government (Bourne again). In Rob Olive’s Essential Liberty, we get a variation on the theme: the ATF. Yes, our very own Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (and Really Big Fires) play the part of ee-vil . . .
The Bureau has embarked upon the “Collection,” hoovering-up once legal firearms in the name of the Family Protection Act. ATF Deputy Assistant Director (Northwest region) Bill “Not Max” Payne will stop at nothing to unleash his murderous SWAT team on innocent civilians—whether or not they own guns. Which they do, fortunately, once the killing starts.
Well not “they.” We’re talking about Don Williams, insurance broker, family man, “never owned a gun in my life” guy and designated protagonist. After Don’s flag-waving BFF dies in an ATF raid, Williams pains Payne, who does what bad guys are supposed to do: frame the good guy, make him go to ground, kidnap his wife and die in a climactic “pay back” set piece that rights all wrongs. Sorry Rob, no spoiler alert needed for this one.
In fact, Essential Liberty suffers from a bad case of firstthrilleritis. Wooden characters say wooden things (mostly in the woods) simply to air-out the author’s gun guy philosophy. As you’d expect, the thriller only stops being a snoozefest when the ATF starts aerating people with 5.56-sized holes. At that point, author Olive doesn’t so much hat tip to Jack Bauer and Jason Bourne and Jack Reacher as draft them in to sort out his main characters’ you-know-what.
The gun stuff—from rocking Glocks to bitchin’ Blackout—is spot-on. Unfortunately, when the S hits the F, our underwriter everyman takes a back seat to the “he’s a ghost” Spec Ops hero. The former Marine and former buddy of the insurance agency boss’ dead buddy kills, tortures and generally upsets the ATF dude and the ATF dude’s boss (the Director)—but not the Attorney General (the Justice Department dude) or the President (The Dude).
Yes, there is that. Although Olive uses the ATF gun grab as a platform for parading political platitudes, he fails to detail the pervasive paranoia that would surely surround the Collection. There’s no Hitchcockian Birds-like atmos in a tale that practically begs for it. Instead, we get an over-large cast of characters for whom plot is character. In short, the novel lacks both focus and atmosphere.
No biggie. Derivative as it is, Essential Liberty is something of a page turner. As and when Rob Olive finds his own voice he’ll be fully capable of crafting thrillers that will find their way to an airport near you soon. Meanwhile, it’s nice to see the jack-booted thugs at the ATF portrayed as jack-booted thugs. Hopefully, we’ll see more of that in the future. The portrayal I mean.