Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Great Stink by Clare Clark

Clark, Clare. The Great Stink. Orlando, FL: Harcourt, 2005.

William May, the fictional protagonist, is a surveyor for the real Metropolitan Board of Works. From 1856 to 1870, the board led by its chief engineer Joseph Bazalgette who plays a minor part in the novel, built 80 miles of sewers under London. This massive infrastructure transformed the city and the Thames that runs through it.

May spends a lot of time in the crumbling old sewer that are soon to be joined and transformed by the board. The filth of London is the least of the horrors of Victorian England that he must overcome. He faces the Crimean War, a military hospital ship, corruption in politics and business, an insane asylum, prison, an indifferent justice system and his own misunderstood mental illness.

Though the novel is set in the midst of an enormous engineering project and the main character has such a breadth of experience, the story focuses on a few people coping with a changing (modernizing) world. Their stories are brought together by petty murder committed by a greedy man.

May, who except for his misfortune might be considered middle-class by 19th century standards, is contrasted to Long Arm Tom. Tom is a tosher; he makes his living recovering copper and other valuable material from the sewage and waste of the city. Many of London’s poorest lived by extracting meager value from waste. The great sewer project was brining and end to Tom’s profession.

May and Tom are witnesses to a murder. May almost hangs for it; it is luck, including the good fortune of having a conscientious lawyer assigned to his case, that rescues him. Tom becomes an accessory to the murder, and later uncovers it to get revenge.

Class was a huge part of English life, and it clearly comes through, but Clark resists taking a romantic view of it. Tom is not virtuous because or in spite of his poverty. He is a wily and unscrupulous denizen of a corrupt world. May is a professional who ostensibly has the most to gain from the social changes occurring, but deeply damaged and almost destroyed by the highs and lows of a society in flux. His lawyer, Sydney Rose, is the scion of an impoverished peerage. He is motivated by his hopes to move up in society as much as by any sense of noblesse oblige. His victory is due as much to luck and determination.

The pace of the book is slow compared to other thrillers of mysteries. The book is as much about May and Tom coping with a changing world as it is about murder mystery. It tempo picks up in the final chapters as Rose begins to put together a defense for May.

Overall, it is an enjoyable book. It works in its combination of history, mainstream fiction, mystery and picturing of a world that is rapidly changing through new technology.

(If you're interested in the history of the great London sewer project, see this review of Dreams of Iron and Steel by Deborah Cadbury.)

Order this book here.