"DOC." By Mary Doria Russell. Random House. $26.
It seems we can't get enough of Doc Holliday.
A central figure in one of American history's most retold events -- the gunfight at the O.K. Corral -- John Henry Holliday has been a key character in dozens of movies and television shows, along with scores of novels, since his death in 1887 of consumption at the age of 36.
So, what's the attraction of a tubercular, Southern gentleman dentist turned snarky card shark? In some pop-culture incarnations -- Oakley Hall's brilliant novel "Warlock," for one (Thomas Pynchon was a big fan) -- Holliday is a bitter man driven by fierce loyalty.
In others -- movies such as John Ford's classic "My Darling Clementine" or the more recent O.K. Corral screen re-enactments, "Tombstone" and "Wyatt Earp" -- he's a Shakespeare-spouting fatalist, doomed to die of either a gunshot or that awful cough.
"Doc," Mary Doria Russell's new Western, is an engrossing portrait of a legend before he becomes a legend. Russell builds on aggressive research into the times and its more colorful characters to create a believable world that, while enriching those other, more familiar Wild West tales, stands solidly on its own.
"Doc" is very much Holliday's story, but Russell does a terrific job of giving shape to supporting players in the drama.
Holliday's lover/common-law wife Kate is a smart, volatile woman, whose reversal of fortune has left her in permanent survivor mode. Lawman Bat Masterson is a dandy more interested in making sure the papers get his (embellished) exploits into print than in seeking justice. The Earp brothers, particularly Morgan and James, manage to be on the right side of the law without dismissing the charms of the alternative.
And their brother, Wyatt, is a by-the-books deputy for whom life's early tragedies have strengthened his resolve -- until he begins to learn that even his best intentions have unexpected consequences.
Plying their respective trades in Dodge City, Wyatt and Doc are united in 1878 by a fresh tragedy: the fiery death of John Horse Sanders, an enterprising part-black, part-Indian man with whom both men had formed a special attachment. When Doc determines that Sanders' death may not have been an accident, he and Wyatt begin poking into the corruption permeating the frontier town.
And what they find both hardens their attitudes and forces them to make choices that lead them to face the future -- and, maybe, death.
Although "Doc" threatens now and again to become a mystery novel, its real appeal is in watching its characters, especially Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, as their personas are forged in the heat of a changing West.
Russell certainly did her homework. A helpful guide at the front of the book tells you which characters existed and which she invented, and her author's notes on her research are the picture of transparency.
At times, Russell slips into the potholes of historical fiction -- a little too much broad cultural history here, a little too much explicit foreshadowing there. There are smatterings on everything from 19th-century Jesuit missionary life on the frontier, to the imperial courts of Austria and Mexico, to the evolution of dentistry: all interesting enough, but distractions from the action and characters at hand.
But in general, her route to the climax -- which makes inevitable the O.K. Corral shootout that made many of these characters household names -- takes enough smart turns to keep the focus not on the destination, but the journey, and how it crafts ordinary people into the stuff of Americana.