DOC: A NOVEL
By Mary Doria Russell
Random House, $26 416 pages
A fiction writer would have to strain hard to create characters such as Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson and Doc Holliday. They were people worthy of fiction and didn’t need 19th-century dime novel sensationalism to spice up their interesting lives. In her novel “Doc,” Mary Doria Russell has chosen to use the letters of Doc Holliday and the remembrances of participants of events in mid-1870s Dodge City, Kan., to craft a story using the real characters rather than dime novel cutouts. She has done a magnificent job.
Doc Holliday perhaps most closely resembles the dime novel characters in reality. He was a gentle Southern dentist with a wry sense of self-deprecating humor, but he was capable of killing a man as coldly as any of the Old West’s famous gunfighters. Wyatt Earp probably killed only one man during his time as a deputy in Dodge City. The Gunfight at the OK Corral, and the ensuing bloody hunt for the notorious Cowboy Gang that killed one of his brothers and maimed another, came after the events of this novel.
Most of Bat Masterson’s legend was apparently self-generated when he became a dime novelist himself. This interesting cast of characters is joined by another legend, vaudeville entertainer Eddie Foy, who was the future patriarch of the famous Foy family. Foy got his start in cow- town saloons before hitting the big time on Broadway.
The plot is a murder mystery. The author probably chose this device because the reality of Dodge City in those days was not very dramatic. The gunfights at high noon that have been the grist of many movies and television shows were very rare. Most of the law enforcement problems consisted of running in drunks and breaking up bar fights.
Ms. Russell clearly needed a storyline in which her characters can develop. In this case a young man of mixed blood whom both Doc and Wyatt have befriended is found dead in a stable fire. Not unusual, except that the boy did not own a horse and didn’t work there. Wyatt had staked him some gambling money which the boy had parleyed into a considerable grub stake, and the money was not found on the body. Suspicious, Earp and Holliday set out to find answers.
Doc uses forensic skills gained in dental school to determine that the boy had received a blow to the head before being consumed by the flames. How Doc and Wyatt go about trying to solve the mystery serves as a stage on which to illustrate the relationship of these two unlikely friends. They were an odd couple indeed.
John Henry Holliday was the scion of a Georgia slave-owning family whose mother died of consumption when he was a boy. He also became afflicted with the disease and is forced to leave a thriving dental practice in the sweltering atmosphere of Atlanta in order to save his life by breathing the drier air of the West. He finds that there is not much of a market for his dental skills in the cow towns of Texas and Kansas, but he is able to supplement his income by his skill with a deck of cards.
Holliday was courtly, sophisticated and witty; in short, everything that the dour Wyatt Earp was not. Earp was a teetotaler while Doc was an alcoholic, a condition brought on by the fact that strong drink was one of the few things that could control his chronic cough. Doc was educated whereas Earp was nearly illiterate; today we would treat Earp for dyslexia because he was very good with numbers and an excellent card player in his own right. Finally, Doc had a hair trigger temper whereas Wyatt was slow to anger. Despite all this, they made up one of the legendary partnerships of the Old West.
A veteran author, Ms. Russell weaves an engrossing yarn as the two men, both of whom kept hookers as consorts, deal with an variety of potential suspects, including Masterson, who knew that the victim had a lot of money on him. Along the way, Doc saves Wyatt’s life and that begins a series of events that eventually will lead to the OK Corral and immortality. Ms. Russell deftly shows how some relatively trivial events grew into legends in the retelling. Along the way, we get attached to these two misfits, their friends, and even a few of their adversaries. If there is a sequel, I want to read it.
Gary Anderson, a retired Marine Corps officer, is an adjunct professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Relations.