Book Review

The Great Stink

Clare Clark


The book is set in Victorian London when the sewers became unable to cope with the detritus that flooded into them and the smell became unbearable and the risk of cholera became imminent. When the smell reached the House of Commons action was finally taken and the master plan of the engineer Bazalgette was finally accepted and the work to make an efficient underground sewerage system began.

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This is the factual background to the story of two men; William May a veteran of the terrors of the Crimean war who has returned home mentally fragile but gains employment as an engineer in Bazalgette’s workforce and Long Arm Tom who works as a tosher, scouring the sewers for valuables from bodies and rats, the latter to sell for the patrons of betting rings as to which dogs could kill the largest number of rats in the shortest time.

When a murder is committed and the body found in the sewers William May is accused but Tom has vital evidence and knowledge that solves the crime. The detection element is well plotted and the characters well drawn. The author, in her characterisation of the two men draws the reader into their lives, their personalities, their humanity and the poverty that is always a threat to their existence.

The depiction of Victorian London with its filth, poverty, prejudices, corruption, horrors, lack of medical care and provision, particularly for mental illness, is vivid and reminiscent of the work of Dickens. Yet amidst all of this is the love of family, of canine companions and the diligence and honesty of some men.

It was a book to be recommended by the group and has prompted some to read others of Clare Clark’s books.