The Great Stink


Clare Clark




Date Reviewed:

February 10, 2008

he Great Stink is a historical novel set in mid-nineteenth century London. The unusual title refers to the fact that main part of this story takes place in the sewers below the city. Clark takes a great delight in describing the foul odors that cloak the city. Her portrayal of London is so universally awful that the story doesn't seem to occur in London at all - the city she describes doesn't include Parliament, Hyde Park or Westminster Abbey (though the Thames river does get mentioned as a choking river of raw sewage); rather, this story takes place in a nightmare city of eye watering smells, foul muck and poisoned air. The city's inhabitants are wretches cloaked in rags who get their jollies from swilling rot-gut and betting on dog vs rat fights.

There are two major threads to this story. The first thread involves a Crimean War veteran named William May. May is an engineer who returned to London bearing deep psychological scars. While in Russia, May was wounded, and recuperated in a horrifying military hospital that Clark describes glee - infections, amputations, vermin, - it is no wonder that May is not entirely sane. In modern terms, May might be diagnosed with post traumatic stress, but of course 19th century England knows nothing about such disorders. May finds that he can only calm his irrational fears by inflicting knife cuts upon his own body. To conceal his actions, May volunteers to spend a lot of time surveying the city sewers where he can be alone. I couldn't help but think that May must have the strongest immune system known to man since he continues to wound himself in the rat infested sewers.

The second story thread involves Long Arm Tom, a poverty stricken bloke who survives by illegally entering the city sewers and searching through the waste and filth for whatever items of value can be salvaged. To supplement his income, Tom captures huge quantities of rats. The rats are used in savage fights with trained dogs. The patrons of the bars bet - can the dog kill all 20 rats in a minute? Such is sport in this bleak city.

Long Arm Tom acquires a mutilated dog that he calls Lady. She turns out to be ferocious ratter, and Tom finds he can make a pretty penny by selling her. But alas, Tom finds he has developed a love for the loyal dog - should he betray his dog for a jackpot of wealth? Naturally, the shady man known as "the Captain" who offers to buy Lady can not be trusted. There is some genuinely suspenseful scenes between Tom and the Captain and the fate of the dog.

London has become so choked with foul sewage that Parliament authorizes a massive public works project - the sewers are to be rebuilt. William May works for the city, and he is a competent engineer despite his mental instability. May's signature is required to authorize the purchase of the bricks needed for the underground construction, but he does not approve of the brick supplier selected by his superior. May wants to use strong brick capable of withstanding the wet rotting sewer conditions, but his diabolical supervisor wants to shuttle the contract to his favored supplier. More good suspense there.

This novel has a lot of positives going for it - there are some horrifying/creepy scenes in the dark sewers, there is the scary confrontations between Long Arm Tom and "the Captain", the awful conditions of the British hospitals and jails is graphic detail, etc. I didn't rated this novel higher because it is so unrelenting in its negative portrayal of 19th century London. Doesn't the sun ever shine? Doesn't anyone ever smile? It seems to be a dark world of stench and despair. Although it has a fine plot and some good scenes, this is not an uplifting novel.