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The Great Stink, by Clare Clark -- A Book Review: A Murder Mystery in Victorian England

Updated on October 22, 2015
Picture is in the public domain
Picture is in the public domain

Riveting mystery set on a rich historical background

5 stars for The Great Stink, by Clare Clark
The Great Stink
The Great Stink

The reviewed book -- a MUST READ if you enjoy Victorian-era murder mysteries.


The reign of Queen Victoria in England coincided with a time of extreme disease, especially in London. Cholera victims died in the hundreds and thousands until there was nowhere else to bury them, and the Thames river oozed and stank with raw sewage. History would remember it as “The Great Stink,” a time when London’s infrastructure was overrun by its explosion in population. The sewers were horribly inadequate and the constant overflows ran into the streets and rivers. It was time for a serious change.

During the Crimean War, they say that the hospitals killed more soldiers than the enemy killed. William May returned from the war sound in body, but gravely wounded in the mind – the images of the pain and suffering in that war haunted him incessantly. He is slowly beginning to heal with the help of his loving wife and young son, and he now has a new job with the Board of Works. May is to join a veritable army of engineers charged with rebuilding the crumbling and inadequate London sewer system.

A local brickyard owner’s body is fished out of the Thames – and the multiple stab wounds suggest he didn’t get there by accident. The man went missing a couple of weeks ago, directly after William May refused to sign off on his bricks for the sewer project. May immediately falls under suspicion for the murder, even while his supervisor attempts to cast him as insane. In the process of trying to prove himself innocent, May could destroy his career and even his family – add to that, he doesn’t even know whether or not he is innocent.

The Great Stink is based on Sir Joseph Bazalgette's real-life project of epic proportions that consisted of redesigning and rebuilding London’s entire sewer system. It is an excellent historical fiction from author Clare Clark, who was born and raised in London. Her close connection with the place described in her book is evident, as she is able to create a three-dimensional stage for her poignant story. While the primary characters are all well-rounded and easily come across as real people, there are few descriptions of the secondary characters, requiring readers to create them completely from imagination – until sometimes a hundred pages later when a description of them comes up. Luckily this issue with secondary characters does not detract much at all from the overall story.

This book was a Christmas present, so I really didn’t know what to expect when I started to read; I quickly began to realize that this book is certainly worth keeping. The Great Stink relies on a vivid, historically-accurate backdrop and a number of intriguing characters to create a great page-turning story. This is bound to find its place on the shelves of those who enjoy murder mysteries and historical fiction. The story is very graphic at times, so it’s really not for younger readers. The main character is often haunted by nightmares and violent fantasies, all of which are vividly described. In all, if you’re looking for a thoroughly engrossing weekend read, The Great Stink is the book for you.

I hope this hub has been useful. Now that you've finished, I would really appreciate a moment of your time to keep the recommendations going. Please post a comment below with your recommendation of your favorite mystery novel or favorite mystery author.


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