To be a writer – any kind of creative – is to be constantly at war with reality, in more ways than one. It is a kind of war to spend the majority of your time in your own head while a myriad of physical and virtual distractions compete for our attention. Another war involves trying to construct only a snapshot – a novel, poem, TV show, short story, or film – that convincingly portrays human experience when the reality is often much more macabre, unbelievable, and farcical.
One of the most common questions asked of writers is where we get our ideas, and there is never only one answer. While writing my fourth novel – The Last – I got ideas from music, TV, friends, social media, print media, the political landscape, throwaway comments, observing real life, spotting the silhouette of a character in the mannerisms or habits or patois of any person in my vicinity, overheard conversations, history, urban legends, and – being a crime writer – true crime.
The Last, set at the end of the world as we know it, is also a murder mystery. The mystery was partly inspired by one of those macabre and unbelievable truths. On 19 February 2003, a maintenance employee called Santiago Lopez responded to a complaint about the water pressure at the Cecil Hotel in Los Angeles. In a rooftop water tank, he discovered the naked body of 21-year-old Canadian student, Elisa Lam. She had been staying at the hotel, and missing since the end of January.
The case – officially ruled an accidental drowning – became an internet sensation, mostly due to a chilling four-minute piece of security footage from the hotel elevator, released by police on 13 February 2003 in the hopes that someone might recognise her. The footage, from the date of her disappearance, depicts Elisa Lam acting erratically, as if terrified and being pursued, in an elevator that won’t leave.
Conspiracy theories about the footage include claims that it’s been doctored, that Elisa Lam was possessed, hallucinating, sick, or under the influence of drugs, though her toxicology report showed no signs of drug use or inebriation. Many questions also remain unanswered by the official ruling: why were Elisa Lam’s clothes found with her but not on her? How did she get into the water tank unaided when it had to be cut open by authorities to retrieve her body? How did she access the roof, when that would have required taking the elevator to the top floor, before climbing a staircase, getting through a locked door, and turning off an emergency alarm?
The Cecil Hotel itself was built in the 1920s and has been refurbished since 2003. Two serial killers have stayed there – Richard Ramirez and Jack Unterweger. It has also been the site of enough unexplained deaths, suicides, and murders to inspire season five of American Horror Story. That ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ is so often repeated it’s become cliché, and to lean upon coincidence in any narrative, let alone a mystery, usually signifies lazy writing.
However, one inexplicable coincidence is the main reason this case has never left my head. At the time of Elisa Lam’s death, there was an outbreak of tuberculosis among the population living in the area surrounding the hotel. The test to identify tuberculosis is called “LAM-ELISA.”