Emma Bull's talent with the succinct turn of phrase and her terse but vivid imagery (saloon barflies troop after a stranger in the first few pages "unconscious as ducklings") combine with taut, clever and often subtle dialogue to provide a highly polished literary read. Unfortunately the tale itself is weak, the whole shebang collapsing in the final third of the book. The mysterious Jesse Fox shows up in Tombstone in the wake of a dying man on a strange horse and everyone's trying to figure out who Fox is and what's brought him to the booming mining town. Turns out, he's a horse trainer by profession headed to Mexico but drawn to Tombstone almost against his will. Moderately fluent in Chinese and at ease in the part of town where that's the linqua franca, the peculiar Mr. Fox soon makes contact with a Chinese herbalist, Chow Lung, a one-time acquaintance of Fox from his San Francisco days. But Chow Lung is more than what he seems. In fact, he's a kind of sorcerer, or at least what some would term that, for this clever Chinese gentleman espouses what he describes as the science of sorcery, explaining to Fox that he's only come to Tombstone because he, Chow Lung, summoned him.
Fox, himself, is a non-believer but Chow Lung patiently explains that some people have special talents, apparently of the psychic variety, and that sorcery is just the science by which "knowledgeable" men learn to access and manipulate those talents or powers. Jesse, his Chinese friend assures him, is such a man, despite his stubborn resistance and hope to simply ignore the whole matter. But there's more going on in Tombstone, says Chow Lung, than meets the eye and a man with such talents as Fox has may not simply pass through unscathed. The mysterious Mr. Fox gradually meets the locals including Mrs. Mildred Benajmin, a young widow now a typesetter for one of the town newspapers, the infamous Doc Holliday and, of course, the brooding and scheming Earp brothers. In an interesting twist on the usual tale about Wyatt Earp and his brothers and their part in the Tombstone blood feud that led to the gunfight near the OK Corral and its aftermath, Earp is portrayed here as the heavy, or at least as a good deal more sinister than the usual heroic lawman we are accustomed to.
Other conventions are turned on their heads, too. Doc Holliday, the consumption ridden if still dangerous gunfighter, high living gambler and mythic friend of the dour Wyatt Earp, is almost pathetic in this tale, riven by disease and held together by little more than the strength of Wyatt's indomitable will. Anxious to get away from the influence of his friend, Doc struggles to find a way out and hang onto his paramour, Kate, who despises Earp. Another familiar character, Curly Bill Brocius turns out to be fairly innocuous, even mildly likeable despite his culpability in the shooting of Sheriff Fred White shortly before the tale opens and the Clantons and McClaurys lack the usual sinister shadow that darkens their profile in more well known versions of the story. Only John Ringo seems a match for Wyatt Earp in will, intellect and hunger for control over others.
Chow Lung patiently spells out the situation for his drifter friend Jesse Fox, letting Fox know he's stumbled into a hornet's nest, however unwillingly -- a hornet's nest of strange goings on. But who the other sorcerers are who are actually manipulating events behind the scenes in a struggle for control over the territory and its people is hidden -- even from the perspicacious Chinese doctor. Chow Lung needs Fox's native, if untrained, talents, he tells him, to help ferret out the culprits and prevent the growth of evil in the territory. But will he have the time to train the still resistant Fox who would as soon get on his way to Mexico as linger in the unpromising boomtown? Fortunately for Chow Lung there are the charms of Mrs. Benjamin to be considered and Fox's own long time friendship with the Chinese doctor.
It's an unusual variation of the Tombstone story, where behind-the-scenes magic and ritual, and lots of strange psychic goings-on, replace the more typical fare of gunplay and showdowns. We never get as far as the incident at the OK Corral and the final comeuppance between the various "knowledgeable men" occurs almost entirely off stage, like a narrative afterthought, even as the widow Benjamin moves confidently but with increasing unease about town, hobnobbing with the Earp women while coquettishly dodging the eager courting of her on-again, off-again suitor, the aforementioned Mr. Fox, ingesting sweets with him at the local ice cream parlor and attending the local Fourth of July town dance.
Along the way we learn a bit about some subtle methods of horse training and how to set type for an old news press. Mildred Benjamin, it turns out, has her share of psychic ability, too, though -- even if she's no more pleased with its advent than Fox himself had been under the esteemed Chow Lung's tutelage. Her own capacity to "see" what others cannot finally thrusts her more deeply into the maelstrom from which the half-trained sorcerer Jesse Fox, her some time love interest, is struggling desperately to extricate himself.
The first two thirds of the story move at a respectable clip and Ms. Bull's talent with the written word makes for a delightful read. But by the end, things have a rushed feel to them, with too much happening off in the wings to leave us with any real sense of narrative satisfaction. The book has an unfortunately unfinished feel to it, as if something was inadvertently left out. The story just grinds to a stop leaving numerous loose ends dangling as Fox, finally getting his groove, manages to tell off his primary nemesis in a way that seems to almost unman the other. And yet we're never provided a clear sense of who Fox's real antagonist in all this had actually been. Was it the man he shakes up so suddenly at the book's end or that other sorcerer, previously hinted at in the course of a card game Fox uncharacteristically plays to lose, who is still operating behind the scenes, waiting for his own comeuppance in the aftermath of the still-to-be-fought Gunfight at the OK Corral?
Stuart W. Mirsky
author of The King of Vinland's Saga