Starred Review. Dickens fans should devour British author Clark's debut novel, a gripping and richly atmospheric glimpse into the literal underworld of Victorian England—the labyrinthine London sewer system. When the "great stink" of the title—the product of an oppressive heat wave combined with putrid sewage overflow—threatens to shut down the British capital in 1855, the politicians agree to fund massive repairs. That immense public works project is a natural magnet for the corrupt, and engineer William May, a psychologically scarred Crimean War veteran, soon finds his ethics challenged. When he courageously decides not to rubber-stamp the use of inferior brick, he puts his life, his sanity and his family at risk. May's vague recollection of a murder he may have witnessed in the depths of the sewer system results in his becoming the prime suspect and being incarcerated in an asylum. That the mystery's eventual resolution depends a bit too much on a deus ex machina in no way detracts from Clark's considerable achievement in bringing her chosen slice of Victoriana to life. She shows every evidence of being a gifted and sensitive writer in the same league as such historical novelists as Charles Palliser.
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Despite its unappealing title, this promising debut novel from newcomer Clark should whet the appetites of historical fiction fans who like a crackling good mystery thrown into the mix. When engineer William May, an emotionally fragile Crimean War veteran, descends into the noxious sewers of mid-Victorian London to assess the feasibility of the massive sewer repairs prompted by the cholera epidemic of 1855, he experiences a measure of psychological relief after he begins cutting himself in the putrid privacy of the dangerously crumbling sewage tunnels. As his tenuous mental equilibrium begins to slip, he is framed for a brutal underground murder and eventually begins to doubt his own innocence. With both his life and his sanity on the line, he must rely on self--proclaimed sewer-rat Long-Arm Tom to unravel an intricate web of deceit and corruption to clear his good name. Clark's meticulous research provides a firm foundation for this fascinating fictional foray into one of the most monumental construction and engineering projects of the fledgling industrial age. Margaret Flanagan
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.