The Great Stink

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The Great Stink is an atmospherically rich thriller which takes place in the fetid depths of London's sewer system in 1855, when the “great stink,” brought about by an oppressive heat wave and overflowing sewers, threatened to bring the city to a standstill. The transformation of this archaic sewer system, one of the great engineering feats of the nineteenth century, supplies the unique milieu for this tale of intrigue and corruption.

The narrative alternates between two characters, William May and Long Arm Tom, whose stories converge as the mystery unravels. May, psychologically scarred by his experience in the Crimean War, has returned to his wife and child and begun work surveying the London sewers in an attempt to return to a normal life. However, while exploring the putrid depths of the sewer, he seeks relief from his psychological pain by cutting and mutilating himself. Accused of a murder he did not commit, May's fate becomes entwined with that of Long Arm Tom, a scavenger who ekes out a living in the sewers hunting rats for dogfights. When Tom discovers the murdered body, the two stories converge, and May's novice lawyer gradually discovers that Tom and his client share a common nemesis.

In her debut novel Clare Clark brilliantly recreates the seamy side of Victorian life, from the terror of the battlefield to horror of the insane asylum and floating prison ship to the stench of the sewers. Her evocative prose and exhaustive research, much of it based upon Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor (1851), pays off abundantly in a rich reading experience.