The Big Stink
I’ve always been interested, for some obscure reason, by London underground. This includes the sewer system. Recently I discovered a series of young adult books in which a thief uses the sewer system to reach the homes of wealthy people. And I greatly enjoyed Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere and the subsequent television movie. I skimmed a review of this book and thought it was non-fiction. When I picked up a copy at the local bookstore I discovered that it was fiction, Clare Clark’s first novel.
This is no story for the squeamish. The stench of the offal, the disgusting consistency of the moving river of sludge is described in full. But the story soon becomes fascinating. William May returns from the Crimean War a psychological mess. He has a recommendation to work for the Public Works just as London has determined that the old and inefficient sewer system need to be replaced. May is one of the few with engineering skills who is able to go down in the sewers and remain there for any length of time. When he is below he is able to find temporary answers to his problems. In the darkness and loneliness he finds solace by cutting himself. The release of his own blood provides relief from the tensions building within.
Long Tom also goes below. He used to find useful items, sometimes even money that had dropped through the grates above. He is what is called a tosh. No longer allowed to hunt for valuables, he now sneaks into the sewers and catches rats for an lowly entertainment that sets rat terriers against twenty rats in a pit. And he owns a dog that can kill nearly that many in a minute.
Will May is found below with a dead body. The body is that of an owner of a brick company whom Will has confronted regarding the quality of the bricks to be used for the new sewers. Accused of murder, he is sent first to an asylum, then to a prison brig to await trial. Meanwhile Long Tom has sold his dog to a disreputable bettor who vanishes with the debt unpaid. How the paths of Will May and Long Tom cross and to what effect is intriguing. This is a darn good book in spite of the smell and the sewage. Fascinating, unique setting, and could very well have happened. Four stars!