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The Great Stink by Clare Clark (2005)


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Review: The Great Stink by Clare Clark

Well, not what I expected. After a slow start, I got through the obtrusive prominent smell, slimy gooey underground walls and walking through brown dirty mud and dodging floating live and dead rats through the twist and turns of the sewer system below London. I recuperated and adjusted to the story and have to say the plot, characters, murder and crimes were well organized, developed and interesting. After saying that, I did end up enjoying the book. I think it was the bowels (no pun intended) of London’s low class area atmosphere that kept me reading.

The story starts out telling about how a Russian soldier knifes William May during the Crimean War and how when William came home it left him suffering from depression, fatigue and in a needy state. Another soldier, Robert Rawlinson took in interest in William’s cause and helped him get a job as a surveyor working on the sewer project under London’s city. William had another problem that he took to the sewer tunnels with him. He had begun to cut himself whenever the pains of emotional war events haunted him unjustly, almost on a daily rate. Despite his affliction, William was a highly educated young man with a wife, a son and another child on the way. Things really started to go bad for him when a senior engineer asked him to take a bribe from one of the brick makers and overlook some of the materials that were being used and William declined. So the engineer set out to ruin William May. After that he started acting strange and his wife thought he was crazy and planned to leave him.

The author goes back and forth between May’s dilemma and that of another character named, “Long Arm Tom“, a suitable business man who sold live rats he got from the sewers. His partner in crime was a little white dog named, Lady. There was a vile undertaking event that went on in the back rooms of some of the establishments where Tom sold his rats. Then Tom himself also gets himself in a bit of a mess. However, Tom is shrewd and sets out for revenge….and as the story unfolds there is a smooth high class villain in the crowd, a murder takes place, blackmail in the sewers of London, a ship in the cove that manifest a prison of uncouth slimy characters, a fist time low-end lawyer trying to break his first time case wide open, and a criminal brought to justice or is he…?

Some of the scatological description of William’s afflictions and gruesome travels through the sewers might bother some and the story lags in a few places but the scenes between Tom and Lady his heartwarming. There is plenty of stink scenario’s to read about, events to unfold, and a mystery to be solve so go to the sewers Of London and hang around for awhile….
( )
  Juan-banjo | May 31, 2016 |
William May returns to England after having served in the Crimea and starts to work as a surveyor for the Metropolitan Board of Works, charged with the construction of a modern sewer system for London. Haunted by his own demons, he retreats to the underground tunnels where he feels safe and commits terrible acts of self-harm. Declared insane and framed for murder, it falls to a young, inexperienced lawyer to exonerate him.

From the first page the reader is thrown headlong into the secret world of the sewers of London with descriptions that bring the nauseating, claustrophobic conditions alive. Also within the first chapter, we are exposed to William's secret of deliberately cutting himself to extinguish the memories of the war and the appalling conditions in the field hospital in Scutari. Personally, I found these passages quite harrowing to read but they set the scene for the rest of the novel and if you can stomach the often graphic descriptions of the filth, squalor and gore both below and above ground, you will be rewarded with a novel that will open your eyes to the terrible living conditions during that time of Victorian England and you will never read another historical novel again without remembering the vision, ingenuity and determination of Joseph Bazalgette.

Meticulously researched and with wonderfully descriptive, evocative prose, Clare Clark's debut novel is astonishingly assured and its characters entirely believable and real, even though I found the appearance of the lawyer resembling a little bit too much a caricature straight out of Dickens. Don't expect this to be a historical murder mystery novel like I did when I picked it up; the first time you learn that there has even been a murder is on page 168, almost halfway through the novel, and it was not difficult to guess the identity of the murderer; I think the synopsis on the front cover is slightly misleading because I don't think that Clare Clark had intended to write that sort of book. In my opinion the novel is too bogged down with detail in places and would have benefited from some judicious editing but it was certainly time well spent, a valuable history lesson and I'm sure you will agree that you'll never read another novel like this again. ( )
1 vote passion4reading | Jul 16, 2012 |
I really enjoyed this book set in the sewers of Victorian England. William May is a damaged man, wounded in the Crimean war and suffering from Shell Shock he is driven to the brink of insanity and manages to bring himself back from it, but only just. He comes home and obtains a job with the department of Sewers. His job is to survey the sewers under Londons' metropolis and this he does diligently, but he also uses the tunnels to "cut" himself to help him cope with life.
Another character is Long Arm Tom a man who makes his living from the sewers collecting rats for the dogs to kill in the "fancy", and anything else of value along the way.
These two characters are inter- twined within the story and come together when a murder is commited and William is arrested for it. He is very fragile and has terrible nightmares about the war leaving him a wreck of a man, he is thrown into an asylum with his ramblings. From there he has to clear his name and save his sanity, his marriage and his life.. Here enters Sydney Rose, a quite unassuming young lawyer who tries to do just that, although a timid man having to deal with London's low life.
The book is atmospheric and quite captavating in the sense that you want to see how it pans out. Maybe not everyones cup of tea! but I enjoyed it! ( )
1 vote Glorybe1 | Oct 2, 2010 |
A sympathetic but flawed protagonist, a good mystery plot and a fascinating setting. Clark is a very good writer as well, and some of her paragraphs reward repeated reading just for their sheer artistry.
1 vote murraystone | Sep 7, 2010 |
It was plodding, and at times the plot was unrealistic. It certainly gave a good feeling for the place and time, even though that place was inside the sewers of Victorian London (hence the title). ( )
  maedb | May 19, 2010 |
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William May: Crimea
Veteran. Haunted, he seeks
Refuge in sewers.

Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0156030888, Paperback)

It takes a world of confidence to name your debut novel The Great Stink, and to set it in a sewer. Not even a modern sewer--charmless though that may be--but the crumbling, cholera-laden, rat-infested, fungus-rich sewers of London in the mid-Victorian period, from which pockets of deadly gas frequently burbled to the surface. Clare Clark's unsavory but completely absorbing first novel is a Dantean tour of this reeking underworld and its denizens: both the scavengers--human and animal--and the reformers, who brave the tunnels in the service of public hygiene and social progress after the 1858 Act of Parliament that called for the rebuilding of the sewer system.

The Great Stink juxtaposes two darknesses, both embodied in the filthy tunnels: the lawless desperation of the very poor, and the despair of madness. One of the junior engineers most useful in mapping the existing sewer is William May, a studious, methodical veteran of the Crimean War who manages to conceal from everyone but his wife the horrors he brought out of battle with him. The tunnels don't frighten William; they provide isolation and silence for the bloody rites that keep the Mr. Hyde in him at bay. It seems only a matter of time before William's self-destruction turns outward. Long Arm Tom, his counterpart among the poor, is a "tosher." He enters the tunnels illegally, scraping the sludge for coins or other booty, and trapping hundreds of rats for fighting against dogs at local taverns (all the rage for sporting gentlemen since dog fights have been outlawed). Kindness is a liability in Tom's world, but two acts of pity--one toward a dog, and one, more grudgingly, toward William--provide the resistance that changes the course of this otherwise relentlessly dire story.

The very weak-stomached may need a cup of mint tea or a bowl of potpourri beside them as they wade through the sewer with Tom and William. Clark has spared readers none of the stink, nor the sharp pleasures of suspense. --­Regina Marler

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:12:48 -0400)

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Returning home from the battlefields of 1855 Crimea, William May struggles to recover from his experiences by working on London's new sewer system, a job that is compromised by a murder accusation that strains his tenuous hold on sanity.

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