The Great Stink

The Great Stink

Book - 2005
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It is 1855, and engineer William May has returned home to his beloved wife from the battlefields of the Crimea. He secures a job transforming London's sewer system and begins to lay his ghosts to rest. Above ground, his work is increasingly compromised by corruption, and cholera epidemics threaten the city. But it is only when the peace of the tunnels is shattered by murder that William loses his tenuous hold on sanity. Implicated in the crime, plagued by visions and nightmares, even he is not sure of his innocence. Long Arm Tom, who scavenges for valuables in the subterranean world of the sewers and cares for nothing and no one but his dog, Lady, is William's only hope of salvation. Will he bring the truth to light?

With extraordinarily vivid characters and unflinching prose that recall Year of Wonders and The Dress Lodger, The Great Stink marks the debut of an outstandingly talented writer in the tradition of the best historical novelists.

Publisher: Orlando, Fla. : Harcourt, c2005
Edition: 1st U.S. ed
ISBN: 9780151011612
Branch Call Number: Suspense F Cla


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Mar 07, 2018

This book is beautifully written and fascinating. I loved the first third, which was as much about the mission to fix London's sewers as anything else. The way the author describes smells and tastes and the experience of Victorian London is wildly evocative and some of the best writing I've read in a while.

Unfortunately, I gave up halfway through. Allow me to provide some trigger warnings: suicidal ideation, cutting, self-harm, depression, severe anxiety, PTSD, dog fighting.

It seemed to me that the main character was not going to get better, and that the story was moving away from his hypercompetence as an engineer and the tale of the engineering marvel that was Bazalgette's legacy, so I stopped reading. A peek about ⅔rds of the way through made me think I had it right, and it was really triggering, so I stopped reading.

If you are interested in Victorian London at its seamiest, and none of those triggers are problems for you, go for it. The writing is amazing.

Aug 14, 2016

This book took a while to warm up but the last quarter of the book was riveting - was there to be justice or not?

Nov 24, 2012

I just read a gaggle of other reviews on here and I've concluded that it is impossible to summarize The Great Stink without making some kind of pun about malodorousness or shit. Nevertheless, I will try.

The novel lingers on the putrid conditions both above and below the streets of Victorian London. The text practically drips with toxic sludge and noisome fog. Indeed, the city's sewers - in particular, their ineffectiveness - are the primary setting of the story and container of its many plot points. Two parallel plot lines emerge from the fetid reek of the sewage troughs, collide in insanity and violence, and then become entangled as the actual plot kicks in about 2/3 of the way through.

The slow start to the plot is not necessarily a criticism, though I did find the first half a bit slow-going. But Clare Clark does a rather remarkable job describing the city in all its disgusting glory and she crafts fully realized characters who are right at home in the filthy and foul streets, taverns, and catacombs. William May - the sewer engineer with horrific wartime flashbacks and a propensity toward cutting (himself) - is a principled but pathetic man who is too good for the world in which he finds himself. Long Arm Tom, the rat-catcher, is a product of the very miasma that chokes the city - wretched, poor, and desperate. Both men are taken advantage of by cruel characters and must rely on an unlikely savior.

The city of London is as much a protagonist as William and Tom, however. It is a city growing out of control with shamefully inadequate infrastructure - both physical and social - to support the basic functions and needs of its citizenry. In the end, the novel is really about the struggle of civilization to tame the basest and most corrupt elements of human nature - our literal and figurative excrement ... both the shit and the shits.

Dammit; I said I wasn't going to do that...

Nov 23, 2010

William May is a veteran of the terrors of the Crimean War. The year is 1855, modern readers will have no difficulty recognizing the signs of post-traumatic stress disorder?poor William is fragile, damaged, and unable to relate to his former life. He finds some measure of solace underground as a surveyor for a massive engineering project to revamp London?s outdated, unstable, and very stinky sewer system. Also patrolling the sewers is Long Arm Tom, a ?tosher? who searches for valuables and catches rats for dogfight bait. Then William witnesses a brutal murder in the tunnels and, due to his slipping hold on reality, is fingered as the culprit and locked away. While William languishes in prison, it?s up to Long Arm Tom to prowl the dark underground in search of the truth. Though the ending may come a trifle too neatly for some readers, most will be swept away by author Clare Clark?s attention to historical detail. Victorian London is richly evoked in all its triumphs and tragedies, from the engineering feats that created London?s sewers to the horrors of the Crimean War to the harsh differences between the lives of the city?s social classes. The Great Stink is a fine mystery and an even finer portrait of a unique historical time and place.

samdog123 Apr 05, 2008

Excellent victorian suspense mystery. Setting is the building of the london sewer system and involves the dark life of the engineer who has demons from his past to conquer.


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