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The Great Stink: A Novel of Corruption and Murder Beneath the Streets of Victorian London [Paperback]

Clare Clark
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)

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Book Description

Sept. 29 2006
Clare Clark’s critically acclaimed The Great Stink “reeks of talent” (The Washington Post Book World) as it vividly brings to life the dark and mysterious underworld of Victorian London. Set in 1855, it tells the story of William May, an engineer who has returned home to London from the horrors of the Crimean War. When he secures a job trans­forming the city’s sewer system, he believes that he will be able to find salvation in the subterranean world beneath the city. But the peace of the tunnels is shattered by a murder, and William is implicated as the killer. Could he truly have committed the crime? How will he bring the truth above-ground? With richly atmospheric prose, The Great Stink combines fact and fiction to transport readers into London’s putrid past, and marks the debut of a remarkably talented writer in the tradition of the very best historical novelists.

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From Publishers Weekly

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.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Booklist

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.

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4.0 out of 5 stars The great stink of the Victorian underworld March 15 2007
By Jennifer Cameron-Smith TOP 50 REVIEWER
Format:Paperback
In this debut novel, Clare Clark has combined historical fiction, suspense and a battle for sanity. From within three levels of darkness (experiences in the Crimean war, working in the sewers of London in the mid 19th century and fighting for his sanity because of his experiences of both) William May may seem an unlikely hero.

Add to the mix a gritty portrayal of life amongst the London poor, the very real events of 'The Great Stink' in 1855 (which ultimately led to the rebuiding of London's sewers) and the stage is set for an interesting novel.

Warning: William May's self destructive tendencies will be very confronting for many. The description, which lends it authenticity, is not for the faint-hearted. Many of us will recognise it and understand it immediately.

I would not recommend this book to the squeamish. I would recommend it to those who like some factual underpinning for their fiction and who seek to descend into the Victorian underworld.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith
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Amazon.com: 3.7 out of 5 stars  48 reviews
37 of 40 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "London, the largest metropolis in the world, was poisoning itself." Sept. 30 2005
By Luan Gaines - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
William Henry May, mapmaker and surveyor, joins England's battle against the Russians in the Crimean War, but is wounded and consigned to a filthy hospital ship, where he languishes almost unto death. Given to unaccountable rages and despair, May never imagines he will survive to be recalled to London. He has frozen into uncaring acceptance of his predicament, but recovers the will to live, the raw emotion so painful that he begins to cut himself, the self-mutilation a relief for his overburdened mental state.

When May is hired in the rebuilding project of the London sewers, a huge and expensive undertaking, his prospects have changed radically for the better. Married, with one son and a baby on the way, William is a changed man, but still tormented by nightmares, unhinged by his experiences in the war. William, nicknamed "The Sultan of the Sewers", continues to disintegrate in this dark hell, where his psyche finds peace only in cutting, his wife purposefully oblivious to her husband's suffering. This is the landscape of 1880's London, with little opportunity for advancement, men desperate to carve out a niche that will keep their families from starvation.

As gruesome and as poverty riddled as any Dickensian tale, this novel exposes the indigenous city poverty, personified by the denizens of the sewers, those who make a scant living collecting the mud-encrusted detritus of others. Vast numbers of poor people create income from the even the filthiest refuse, bought and sold for profit. The great rotting underground sewers are a metaphor for the class distinctions that leave the destitute to wallow in the most extreme conditions, soothed by cheap gin, while the Fancy, the rich, indulge in betting to alleviate their boredom, visiting the slums for sport. Even the bureaucracy is corrupt, the sewer project approved, while the funds are withheld by a bickering Parliament.

As the project progresses, the sewers become less navigable, the flushers left to ever more ingenious ways in and out. Under the threat of exposure, agents supplying bricks attempt to force May to accept substandard materials, especially Alfred England, whose bricks have been contracted by May's superior. The stress of constant threats to his family should he not agree to the illegal contracts drive May deeper into the chaos of his own mind, thoughts of death and war merging with everyday reality. Indeed, in the face of murder, who better to blame than the insane, self-mutilating William May?

With remarkable detail that requires a strong constitution, the author reveals the complex underpinnings of city management and graft. In a complex blend of murder, greed and madness, the London bureaucracy ripe for plundering by privateers, the protagonist becomes the unwitting victim of greedy villains. In this unhealthy mix, all are caught in the rude stew of city waste, men with their own personal demons and small enjoyments. Not an easy book to read, with its unflinching detail, The Great Stink is a timely reminder of the skeleton that must be maintained, a framework for civilization, where opportunity offers freedom from a life of discontent and distorted appetites. Luan Gaines/2005
15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Clark gives Dickens a run for his money! March 31 2006
By Dave Schwinghammer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
There's no doubt Clare Clark modeled THE GREAT STINK after Dickens. Readers will be surprised at how well she succeeded.

Clark's acknowledgments tell us quite a bit about how she planned her novel and where she got the title. One of her sources was THE GREAT STINK OF LONDON by Stephen Halliday about the great engineer Joseph Bazalgette's attempt to completely overhaul the sewers of London. Another, Marilee Strong's study of self-injury, A BRIGHT RED SCREAM, provided motivation for one of the novel's main characters, William May. A primary source, LONDON LABOUR AND THE LONDON POOR, gave credibility to her other main character, Long Arm Tom.

The story starts when a Russian soldier bayonets William May during the Crimean War. Robert Rawlinson, who was in charge of sanitary reforms during the war, took an interest in May and helped get him a job as a surveyor working on the Bazalgette's sewer project. The problem was that May was suffering from what sounds like battle fatigue or clinical depression. He began to cut himself to drive away the dark moods, and he used the sewers to do it. Despite his affliction, William May is a highly principled young man, and when a senior engineer solicits a bribe from one of the brick makers, May refuses to go along. The senior engineer sets out to ruin him.

Clark shifts back and forth between May's dilemma and that of Long Arm Tom whose vocation will definitely remind you of Dickens. Long Arm Tom is a rat catcher. He sells them for a penny a piece to gin joints where "Fancies" bet on how many rats a ratter (a dog) can kill in two minutes. Tom adopts one of these ratters when her owner dies. She's one of the best ratters in the history of the sport. The fact that Tom makes a living in the sewer provides a tie to William May. Another Dickens character is the lawyer who takes William May's case when he is arrested for murder. Watch what she does with this guy's hands; she learned from the master.

The scatological descriptions and the emphasis on cutting will bother some, but if you can get past this, this is a really entertaining read. You're never quite sure if William May will make it. Long Arm Tom and his dog Lady add a certain amount of warmth to a sometimes brutal novel.
21 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars DARK DARK book....that will remind you of Dickens. Nov. 10 2005
By sb-lynn - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I am giving this book 5 stars, because I found the story and the history of the London sewers so fascinating. I appreciate wonderful fiction that educates me as well as entertains.

Summary, no spoilers:

The is the story of William May, a soldier from the Crimean War.

May has been psychologically damaged from that war, and the horrible treatment he received at the hospital afterwards.

He is married to a very sweet, optimistic woman, but it's is hard for her to keep her mental and emotional balance with someone as severely disturbed and depressed as William.

William, back from the war, is now a surveyor who is assigned the task of helping to redo the decrepit sewer system under the streets of London.

The story features the sights (and SMELLS!) of this amazing underground world, and the book features assorted sundry characters and a murder to boot.

I guarantee you will learn a lot reading this book. And if you are like me, you will find the first 4/5 so depressing, that you may want to consider a Prozac drip.

Saying that, when I was done with the book I was glad I had read it.

I applaud the effort and research that went into this book.

It is not a fast read, but a worthwhile one.
16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars The Great Slog (small spoilers) May 2 2007
By CydW - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
What a disappointment. Although I love historical thrillers (Dan Simmons' "The Terror" grabbed me and never let go), I had to force myself to finish "The Great Stink." Clare Clark may be a wonderful historian, but she doesn't seem to have any flair for story-telling. Her pacing is off: for a disproportionate chunk of the book she gives us interminable and repetitive descriptions of the sewers and her protagonist's cutting episodes (with a side order of dog-vs.-rat fights), and then rather hastily wraps up all the loose ends in an implausibly neat "happy" ending.

Worse, I found it impossible to feel for the protagonist, William May, because Clark fails to bring him to life. He's nothing but a case study; she doesn't do an adequate job of building him as a character before and separate from his psychological problems. "When he's in his right mind, he likes to do botanical drawings" does not a convincing human being make.

As another reviewer mentioned, the only character I was taken with was the dog.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars I Had Such Hopes . . . June 13 2006
By A. Harrington - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I didn't care for THE GREAT STINK, but not for the reasons many other readers here have given. I couldn't even finish it. I found the description fascinating. The author was masterful with description, a fine talent. And the characters were interesting. But oh, pleeeease, SO MUCH narrative and not nearly enough dialogue. The author only told us what was going on and rarely showed it. We were walked through what could have been truly engaging and interesting chapters, like being rushed through a guided tour. Delineated scenes were scant. Unless the book got better after page 90--when I gave up--I'm not sure what the hoopla is all about.
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