Mount Alvernia High School, Newton, Massachusetts

Chris  Cleave

Olivia  Viall 

The Cecil Hotel: Murder, Violence, & Suicide on Skid Row

Individual Loss and Widespread Tragedy in Chris Cleave’s Novels

During the Great Depression, the Cecil Hotel took part in transforming the subculture of the now slum-like neighborhood of Skid Row by housing the most impoverished members of Los Angeles, California. For a time, the Cecil Hotel was considered one of the most high-end establishments in the Los Angeles area and attracted traveling businessmen and tourists when it opened in 1927. Eventually, however, the Great Depression greatly impacted the Cecil’s clientele, instead enticing the poverty-stricken to check in and take their own lives because of the unendurable economic turmoil taking place in the United States. This period of financial insecurity and scarcity also increased homelessness and prompted many individuals to develop a dependency on alcohol that contributed to the overall state of violence along Skid Row. In regards to this violence, the Cecil acted as an easily accessible destination to commit crimes and housed some of the most famous serial killers of the twentieth-century. The major incidents of murder, violence, and suicide have created an everlasting impact on the Cecil Hotel that continue to shape the atmosphere, community, and substance abuse issues on Skid Row today.

Similarly to the losses that the Great Depression has imposed on the Cecil Hotel and the entirety of Skid Row, Chris Cleave inflicts a sense of loss upon the protagonists of his novels in order to compare the impact that tragedy has on a single individual and society as a whole. Cleave defines each loss differently according to every person that experiences it. In his novel Incendiary, the narrator experiences a personal tragedy when she loses her husband and son to one of Osama Bin Laden’s terrorist attacks in London. While she is unable to move forward from this loss, the rest of the world continues to function as if the tragedy did not occur. In addressing the impact that loss has on the identities of his characters, Cleave successfully brings attention to the tragedies taking place in the world that are often times ignored by society.

Major Works Consulted:

Cleave, Chris. Incendiary. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005.
---. Little Bee. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011.
McElvaine, Robert S. The Great Depression. New York: Three Rivers Press, 1984.
Mizruchi, Ephraim H. The Substance of Sociology: Codes, Conduct, and Consequences. New York: Meredith Corporation, 1973.
Photo Credit: “Chris Cleave.” Simon & Schuster.