In 1885, England is engaged in the Crimean War, fighting the Russians in Turkey. It is there that we first meet William Henry May, mapmaker and surveyor, wounded and consigned to a filthy hospital ship where he languishes, given to unaccountable rages and despair, never imagining he will survive.
Frozen into uncaring acceptance of his predicament, May gradually recovers the will to live, the raw emotion so painful that he begins to cut himself, the self-mutilation a relief for his overburdened mental state. Recalled to London by an officer who remembers him from the front, May is hired to help with the rebuilding project of the London sewers, a huge and expensive undertaking, his prospects changed radically for the better.
William is a changed man but still tormented by nightmares, unhinged by his experiences in the war. Nicknamed "The Sultan of the Sewers," May disintegrates further in this dark hell where his psyche finds peace only in self-mutilation. His wife is purposefully oblivious to her husband's suffering as she prepares to give birth to their second child.
In the harsh landscape of Victorian London, there is scarce opportunity for advancement. Men are desperate to carve out a niche that will keep their families from starvation. As gruesome poverty-riddled as any Dickensian tale, this novel exposes the indigenous city poverty personified by the denizens of the sewers, those who make a scant living collecting the mud-encrusted detritus of others. Even the bureaucracy is corrupt, the sewer project approved while the funds are withheld by a bickering Parliament: "London, the largest metropolis in the world, was poisoning itself."
The poor create income from the even the filthiest refuse, bought and sold for profit, the great rotting underground sewers a metaphor for the class distinctions that leave the destitute to wallow in the most extreme conditions, soothed by cheap gin. Meanwhile, the Fancy visit the slums for sport, indulging in betting to alleviate their boredom.
The sewers are made less navigable as the project progresses, the flushers left to ever more ingenious ways in and out. A purveyor of bricks, Alfred England, attempts to intimidate May into accepting substandard materials, threatening to expose William for his underground activities. The stress only drives May deeper into the chaos of his own mind, thoughts of death and war merging with everyday reality. Indeed, in the face of murder, who better to blame than the insane, self-mutilating William May?
Reading this novel requires a strong constitution as the author reveals the complex underpinnings of city management and graft in a complex blend of murder, greed and madness. The London bureaucracy is ripe for plundering by privateers, and the protagonist becomes the unwitting victim of greedy villains.
All are caught in the rude stew of city waste, men with their own personal demons and small enjoyments. With its unflinching detail, The Great Stink is a timely reminder of the critical skeleton of a city, the framework for civilization, where opportunity offers freedom from a life of discontent and distorted appetites too easily attained.