Truly a murder most foul

Could there be a more pungent setting for a thriller than the sewers of Victorian London?

And the award for most memorable title of the year goes to ... The Great Stink. Clare Clark's debut novel is an aptly named exploration of one of 19th-century London's biggest public works projects: the 80 miles of modern sewers that would rescue the British capital from its own waste. By the opening of the story in 1855, "London, the largest metropolis in the world, was poisoning itself."

The title comes from a heat wave that finally spurred Parliament to action. "The newspapers called it simply the Great Stink. Day after day, week after week, the Stygian pool of the Thames had stewed in the relentless sun and sent its putrid reproaches directly and powerfully into the House of Commons. It was claimed that no one who inhaled the sickening stench would ever forget it, assuming, that was, that he lived long enough to remember it."

Finally beaten down by the smell, Parliament agreed to fund the £3 million needed to pay for Joseph Bazalgette and his civil engineers to perform a sanitary marvel. Bazalgette, one of the few characters Clark draws from life, is credited with saving more lives than any other Victorian official.

One of Bazalgette's foot soldiers is William May (do note the flowery name), a veteran of the Crimean War who was injured both physically and psychologically during that debacle. (If the descriptions of the sewers don't make a reader's stomach churn, the wartime infirmaries will.)

William knows the sewers better than almost anyone working at the offices of One Greek Street. The noisome tunnels have become an unlikely refuge, where he has taken to cutting himself in secret. His wife, Polly, pretends not to notice his haggard appearance and freshly bandaged arms, but his co-workers aren't exactly inviting him out to lunch anymore.

The sewers also feel like home to Long Arm Tom, a "tosher" who makes his living scavenging underground.

When pickings are slim, he supplies cages full of rats to working-class taverns for their weekly dog fights.

Tom has one unique feature, a nose that lets him sift through the layers of odors, making it possible for him to identify where he is by smell alone.

"The Great Stink" alternates between the two men's stories, until one night there is a murder in the sewers, and William finds himself carted off to an insane asylum. At this point, his hold on sanity is so tenuous that William isn't sure whether he committed the crime or was just a witness to it.

Between the sewers, the insane asylum, and the ships serving as both prison and sickroom - to say nothing of the dogfights - Clark has loads of raw material on which to hone her descriptive powers. (Had she wedged an orphanage and a workhouse in there, the tour of Victorian misery would have been complete.)

And her abilities are so impressive in that direction, the delicate of constitution will want to read with a perfumed hankie pressed to their nose.

As a history, Clark's debut is impressive. In her acknowledgments, she credits Henry Mayhew's "London Labour and the London Poor" for its nose-to-the-ground approach, which made it possible for her to re-create working-class 1850s London. As a mystery, though, "The Great Stink" is only passable. William's good-hearted but inexperienced lawyer shows up late in the day, the murderer's identity is never in doubt, and justice depends a little too much on coincidence.

Critics like to throw the adjective "Dickensian" around to mean dark and depressing, but Dickens also possessed a broad romantic streak and a lively sense of humor. That feeling of uplift is pretty much absent from Clark's narrative, which is as dank and narrow as the passageways it follows.

The most loving relationship in the novel is Tom's affection for a rat-catching dog named Lady, who gave "the overall impression ... of a creature assembled in the dark."

Readers may not fully warm to poor William or Polly, whose ability to ignore the unpleasant is taxed to the utmost. But Long Arm Tom is a memorable character, and the tunnels he stalks are vivid. One just wishes Clark hadn't felt the need to rub our noses in them quite so much.

Yvonne Zipp is a freelance writer based in Kalamazoo, Mich

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