The year is 1878, peak of the Texas cattle trade. The place is Dodge City, Kansas, a saloon-filled cow town jammed with liquored-up adolescent cowboys and young Irish hookers. Violence is random and routine, but when the burned body of a mixed-blood boy named Johnnie Sanders is discovered, his death shocks a part-time policeman named Wyatt Earp. And it is a matter of strangely personal importance to Doc Holliday, the frail 26-year-old dentist who has just opened an office at No. 24, Dodge House.
Beautifully educated, born to the life of a Southern gentleman, Dr. John Henry Holliday is given an awful choice at the age of 22: die within months in Atlanta or leave everyone and everything he loves in the hope that the dry air and sunshine of the West will restore him to health. Young, scared, lonely, and sick, he arrives on the rawest edge of the Texas frontier just as an economic crash wrecks the dreams of a nation. Soon, with few alternatives open to him, Doc Holliday is gambling professionally; he is also living with Mária Katarina Harony, a high-strung Hungarian whore with dazzling turquoise eyes, who can quote Latin classics right back at him. Kate makes it her business to find Doc the high-stakes poker games that will support them both in high style. It is Kate who insists that the couple travel to Dodge City, because “That’s where the money is.”
And that is where the unlikely friendship of Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp really begins - before Wyatt Earp is the prototype of the square-jawed, fearless lawman; before Doc Holliday is the quintessential frontier gambler; before the gunfight at the O.K. Corral links their names forever in American frontier mythology - when neither man wanted fame or deserved notoriety.
Mary Doria Russell's last two novels have been works of historical fiction, and Doc demonstrates that she's clearly found her groove in the genre. The premise of the book is at once both iconic and imaginative, treating the beginnings of friendship between Doc Holliday and the Earp clan several years before all the fuss at the O.K. Corral. These are not hardened lawmen, but struggling young men with simple dreams of financial stability and good health. Mark Bramhall does an impeccable job with the voice work, taking on these enormously well known characters and adding a sensitive depth of uncertainty. After all, at this moment in history, John Henry Holliday is just a dentist who plays a bit of poker, and Wyatt Earp is merely a part-time officer of the peace who is hoping to breed racehorses. They are thrown together out of concern for a mutual acquaintance, John Horse Sanders, a mixed-race man who died in a fire but who may have been murdered before the fire got started.
It's a straightforward Western mystery with a surprising amount of intricate narration. Mark Bramhall is a prize when it comes to character acting, so he handles the various Southern accents, from Georgia to Texas to Kansas, without even breaking a sweat. But everyone knows Doc Holliday died of consumption at a young age. Doc's dialogue is riddled with hacking, coughing, spluttering and spitting. Bramhall manages to insert all of these credibly, yet without disrupting the flow of the story or ruining Doc's many profound punch lines. It's particularly a treat to hear him voicing Doc's fiery gypsy whore, Kate. Switching between Western and Hungarian accents seems difficult enough, but Kate is also fluent in a number of other languages, and Bramhall delivers the French and Latin with an easy grace. Russell's slow and steady narrative is bound to delight, but as with all good Westerns, it's the drawling sound of the place that will make it truly enchanting. Megan Volpert
"Fact and mythmaking converge as Russell creates a Dodge City filled with nuggets of surprising history, a city so alive readers can smell the sawdust and hear the tinkling of saloon pianos....Filled with action and humor yet philosophically rich and deeply moving - a magnificent read." (
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