The man behind the icon

"Doc" by Mary Doria Russell (Random House, 389 pages, $26)

Mary Doria Russell's brilliant first novel, "The Sparrow," followed a group of Jesuits launched into space to make contact with an alien race. Her second, "Children of God" was a sequel nearly as compelling as "The Sparrow." For her third novel, she jumped to World War II-era Italy; for her fourth, Egypt in the time of Lawrence of Arabia.

All of her works, though, share the common threads of excellent writing, complex characters, thoughtful plots and deeper moral and philosophical questions. "Doc," her fifth novel, is no exception.

John Henry Holliday is largely remembered — and lionized — in connection with Wyatt Earp and the gunfight at the OK Corral. But Russell looks beyond the icon, into the deep, complicated soul of "Doc" Holliday for this fictionalized account of his life.

The novel starts in Georgia, briefly outlining Holliday's childhood and family, and detailing the impact that his mother's illness and death had on his young life. From there, we follow Holliday to Texas, where he first tries to make a go of dentistry but finds more profit in gambling. And then, the move to Dodge City instigated by his prostitute girlfriend to alleviate his tuberculosis. Dodge's drier climate helped, but the disease would eventually kill him as it did his mother.

The bulk of the novel takes place in Dodge, where Holliday settles in, sets up his own dental practice, and does a fair amount of card-playing as well.

"Doc" is as much a portrait of Dodge City as it is of Doc Holliday. Russell captures the frontier atmosphere of the still-young town and shows the depth and complexity of its motley residents — some good, some not, nearly all flawed: gamblers, farmers, lawmen, businessmen, clergymen, immigrants, Indians, and, of course, whores.

And during certain times of year, cowboys.

"Front Street was alive with young men. Sauntering, staggering. Laughing, puking. Shouting in fierce strife or striking lewd whispered bargains with girls in bright dresses. They were giddy with liberty, these boys, free to do anything they could think of and pay for, unwatched by stern elders, unseen by sweethearts back home, unjudged by God, who had surely forsaken this small, bright hellhole in the immense, inhuman darkness that was west Kansas."

Since the story is based on real people and events, Russell doesn't have a lot of leeway with plotting. But she doesn't need it, spinning fascinating tales about the myriad backgrounds and relationships of Dodge City's populace. We meet Wyatt Earp and his brothers, Bat Masterson, and numerous other characters who are no less interesting. We peer into their lives and fights and politics.

The one plotline running most of the way through "Doc" concerns the death of a young black man in a fire, which is initially ruled accidental but which Holliday suspects is not what several locals want it to appear. It weaves in and out of the story, drawing in other characters and events, and it finally gets resolved, perfectly.

But probably the most interesting thread is Holliday's relationship with his girlfriend, Kate Harony, who was born into Hungarian aristocracy — she was educated and cultured, but when her family fortunes shifted, ended up reduced to prostitution. But education and culture remain even in the direst of circumstances, and she's the only other resident of Dodge who can discuss art and music and literature — in several languages — with the equally well-educated and refined Holliday. The pair are opposites in many ways, and fight frequently, but they always wind up back together, the slowly dying Holliday and the one person who made him "a little less lonely."

It's through this relationship in particular that Russell has managed to write a worldly, literate novel about a dusty Kansas cowtown. There's plenty of grit and gunfighting in "Doc," but also beauty and soul — the truer side of a man who went down in history for one moment of violence.