House, Holmes and Hailey

Or, why I consider Sherlock Holmes the grandfather of Hailey Cain

Note: This essay contains spoilers for “Hailey’s War.” 

images of Benedict Cumberbatch and Hugh Laurie, with the caption, 'Such good genes.'

It’s going to take some explanation how Sherlock gave rise to Hailey.  The connection is less than immediate, which is why I say in the title that Sherlock is Hailey’s ‘grandfather’, not ‘father.’  If it seems opportunistic for a mystery novelist to trace her protagonist’s lineage back to Holmes — like a grab for popularity among Doyle’s many fans — what I’m about to say next will put that idea to rest. 

For most of my life, I wasn’t a fan of the guy in the deerstalker hat. The stories seemed to rely on rather silly premises: Consider ‘The Adventure of the Speckled Band,’ in which a woman is killed by an exotic trained snake lowered into her bedroom on a rope from a trapdoor in the ceiling.  Doyle’s stories seemed fine as whimsical 19th-century magazine offerings, but I didn’t understand the ‘this is how it’s done’ reverence they were given by modern crime writers, to many of whom Sherlock was ‘The Detective’ in the same way that Irene Adler was ‘The Woman.’  

It’s difficult to imagine two fictional investigators further apart in character than Sherlock Holmes and Hailey Cain.  Holmes was the son of country squires; Hailey the daughter of blue-collar California.  Holmes pursued criminals through the fog of 19th-century London; Hailey through the ‘overheated sprawl of Los Angeles’. Holmes played the violin in his Baker Street flat; Hailey probably downloads MP3s.  Holmes’s best friend was a righteous British Army doctor; Hailey’s is a Latina gangbanger.    

My conversion was still years away — it would come with ‘A Study in Pink,’ the pilot of the modernized BBC series, with Benedict Cumberbatch in the lead.  BBC’s ‘Sherlock’ made me realize that there’s a version of Conan Doyle’s classic for everyone; you just have to find it.  But back in 2006, I didn’t have Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffatt to introduce me to the pleasures of Holmes.  What I did have was sporadic insomnia, and when I couldn’t sleep, ‘House M.D.’ was my favorite late-night viewing. 

‘House’, as many of you will already know, was based on Sherlock Holmes. The show’s creators made no secret of the homage: ‘House,’ is a homophone for ‘Holmes,’ and ‘Wilson’, the name of House’s best friend, sounds a lot like ‘Watson.’  The hospital’s dean of medicine, Dr. Cuddy, was a Lestrade-like figure of authority.  And so it went, through the second-season cliffhanger, when House was shot by a man named Moriarty, all the way to the Reichenbach-Falls-themed series finale.  

Medical mysteries as a substitute for criminal mysteries: if it was a natural fit, there was a reason; the link already existed in the Holmes universe.  Arthur Conan Doyle was a doctor, which seems be why he chose to make the narrator of Holmes’s adventures not “Mr. Watson” but “Dr. Watson.” More important, Holmes himself was largely based on a physician: Joseph Bell, a gifted diagnostician for whom Doyle served as a clerk. In a sense, when David Shore chose to make his Sherlock figure, Gregory House, an M.D., he was taking the character full circle.  

But back to the fall of 2006, when I was making very preliminary notes for a young female character who would rise above a troubled past to do something heroic.  To write this essay on Holmes and Hailey, I looked back at my notebooks for that year, to remind myself what I was thinking.  That was an eye-opening experience.  My early ideas were, if anything, more morally shady that what came out in Hailey’s War. An early incarnation of CJ was neither Hailey’s cousin nor a music producer, but a sexily amoral school friend who became a drug dealer.  Serena Delgadillo, Hailey’s gangbanger friend and sometime boss, didn’t appear in my early notes.  (When she arrived, she took a good bit of the illegal doings off CJ’s hands, freeing him up to become the character he is now.) Meanwhile, prospects for Hailey included the possibility that she used drugs and overdosed outside a storefront evangelical church in Oakland, reviving after being prayed over by the church’s young and mostly black worshipers.  Her redemption would begin on that night. 

It was around this time that I saw the second-season ‘House’ episode ‘Autopsy.’  I think it’s one of the best episodes they ever did.  I’m biased, though, because it changed the course of Hailey’s life.

In ‘Autopsy’, one of Dr. Wilson’s terminal cancer patients, nine-year-old Andie, is having hallucinations, a symptom unrelated to her cancer.  After she’s admitted to the hospital, Wilson consults House, who notices how unfailingly brave Andie is and theorizes that she has a blood clot in her amygdala, the brain’s fear center, preventing her from feeling anxiety.  

This turns out not to be the problem, and House barrels onward in pursuit of a diagnosis, eventually stopping Andie’s heart and cooling her body in order to perform an ‘autopsy’ that finds the clot elsewhere in her brain.  Just before Andie’s discharge, Wilson suggests to House that the nine-year-old is getting more enjoyment out of her life — terminal cancer and all — than House gets out of his.  By episode’s end, House is seen racing through the countryside on an Aprilia motorcycle, trying to wring some exhilaration out of his jaded existence.

On the show, the amygdala/inability-to-feel-fear idea was just a throwaway theory, one of many hypotheses that House and his colleagues toss around in the course of an episode.  But for me, it was something more.  I didn’t sit bolt upright and think, ‘Eureka!’  But at some point afterward, I wrote the following in my notebook: “What if Hailey had a tumor in her amygdala that kept her from feeling fear?”

That idea became central to the Hailey Cain story, and it’s the main reason I consider Sherlock Holmes her ‘grandfather’: Holmes begat House, House begat Hailey.  The amygdala-tumor idea is the main connection; however, the show’s influence crops up in a few other places.  In Hailey’s War, Serena offers Hailey Vicodin, which is House’s drug of choice.  The Italian motorcycle Hailey rides in Thieves Get Rich, Saints Get Shot, is an Aprilia, the same kind that House test-drives at the end of the ‘Autopsy’ episode.

Magnus Ford, the gang-intelligence detective with whom Hailey matches wits in Thieves, also owes a bit of his DNA to ‘House, M.D.’  More specifically, to Detective Mike Tritter, who, in Season Three, relentlessly worked to put House in prison on drug-abuse charges. Tritter was portrayed by David Morse as a man of soft words and crocodile patience that hid a vengeful streak.  I envisioned Magnus Ford as a similar character, but as Magnus launched his own investigative group, he was to have become less like Tritter and more like House himself.  Magnus would treat his agents, including Hailey and the young cop Joel Kelleher, like House treated his underlings. He’d respect and rely on them, but he’d also study them like his own lab rats, sometimes manipulating them just to see what the outcome would be. 

This gets at the thing I most wished to emulate about ‘House’: its edge.  It wasn’t just hospital rules that got broken on the show; House and his young colleagues often disregarded the ‘shoulds’ and ‘have-tos’ of society at large.  One of the best examples of this comes, again, from ‘Autopsy.’  

The patient, Andie, is about to undergo a scan; she’s alone in the lab with Dr. Robert Chase, one of House’s diagnosticians-in-training.  As Chase chats with her, trying to put her at ease, Andie reveals that she understood the procedure going in, but let him explain it because ‘I just like hearing you talk.’ (Part of Chase’s appeal was not just Jesse Spencer’s sharp cheekbones and great hair but his Australian accent).  Then Andie turns wistful about her impending death, telling Chase that she’s never kissed a boy.  Chase says there’s plenty of time for that yet.  They both know that isn’t true, and Andie asks Chase to kiss her. 

Of course he refuses, on the grounds that she’s nine and he’s 30.  Andie presses her suit, saying that she doesn’t want to die without knowing what being kissed feels like.  And then, Chase actually kisses her.Not a peck, but a lingering, several-seconds-long kiss on the lips. It was a thrilling moment of television, but the biggest shock might be that it didn’t cause an uproar among TV critics and viewers.     

If readers and viewers seem increasingly willing to accept such morally chiaroscuro behavior on the part of characters we’re otherwise supposed to consider good guys, Gregory House and Sherlock Holmes — especially Benedict Cumberbatch’s incarnation of the detective — get some credit.  Both are characters who’ll seemingly do anything to stave off the worst of all fates, boredom.   

So, ultimately, I want to thank the writers who made Hailey Cain what she is.  First, Arthur Conan Doyle, who created characters that have fascinated writers for more than a century.  Mark Gatiss and and Steven Moffatt, who are making dazzling television from dusty Victoriana.  But most of all, Lawrence Kaplow, the ‘House M.D.’ writer-producer who penned one of its most daring, human, and touching episodes.  It’s a true shame that he isn’t, like Doyle, Gatiss and Moffatt, a well-known name.