The cacophony of sights, sounds and smells emanating from the seamier side of Victorian London seethe like the city itself in the pages of this highly atmospheric debut novel that chooses an unusual backdrop for murder: the city's sewers. During this era, crumbling subterranean tunnels festered beneath the cobbled streets, absorbing the city's detritus and spewing it out into the Thames, which had become a giant, odiferous cesspool. By the summer of 1858, things had reached a fever pitch as a cholera epidemic ravaged the city and a sewage backup gave rise to a stench so repulsive it became known as "The Great Stink." It is within this pungent milieu that Clare Clark sets her richly imagined story of murder, madness and corruption centering on a humble surveyor with the Metropolitan Board of Works, William May. After witnessing the atrocities of war on the Crimean frontlines, William returns home in a precarious mental state, finding comfort in his wife and child as well as in his work assessing the decrepit sewers. But after a murder occurs in his subterranean sanctuary, he plunges into a madness so profound that it nearly destroys his family, his tenuous connection to reality and even his very life, as he finds himself standing trial for the crime. The only one who can save him is a Dickensian sewer scavenger, Long Arm Tom, who knows more than he cares to share and has a score of his own to settle. Interspersing the narratives of the two men, The Great Stink takes us on a fascinating aboveground tour of London's corrupt bureaucracies, raucous taverns and overcrowded tenements, by way of the labyrinthine underworld that connects them all. Combining riveting fact with imaginative fiction, the author brings to heady olfactory life the fascinating political machinations surrounding the birth of the city's modern sewer system. As deeply engrossing and evocative as the novels of Caleb Carr and Charles Palliser, The Great Stink shines a lantern into the dark and uncelebrated recesses where few have dared venture before.
Joni Rendon writes from London, where she is very grateful indeed for the Victorian modernization of the sewage system.