THE GREAT STINK

A Novel of Corruption and Murder

Beneath the Streets of Victorian London

By Clare Clark

Harcourt. 362 pp. $25

Clare Clark's first novel starts in the gutter and goes downhill from there. But that's entirely appropriate for her fantastic thriller set in mid-19th century London, where "on a hot day the stink could knock you flat." Most of the action in this outrageous story takes place in the sewers swelling with excrement from 2 million people. If cleaning your bathroom turns you green or the thought of using the toilet plunger raises your gorge, jump immediately to the next review. In this novel, poop happens. And happens. Clark's description of the city is so odoriferous that you'd think it was printed on scratch-'n-sniff paper:

"The smell was solid and brown as the river itself," she writes of the Thames, from which Londoners drew their drinking water. "It grinned its great brown grin and kept on going, brazen as you like, a great open stream of shit through the very centre of the capital, the knobbles and lumps of rich and poor jostling and rubbing along together, faces turned up to the sky. . . . The water was so dense and brown it seemed that it should bear a man's weight."

Before turning up your nose, though, get a whiff of the plot that wafts through this novel. In rich Dickensian detail, Clark creates the whole city teeming with life and decay, but she keeps the focus on a few fascinating characters in desperate straits. Chief among them is William May, an engineer working on the most awesome civil project of the age: the construction of a new sewer system as large and complex as the city above it, complete with its own network of roads and alleys, settling pools for fountains, and pump stations as grand as cathedrals -- an infernal reflection of London, except that it's all pitch black, surging with unspeakable sludge and populated by millions of rats. Commissioned at extraordinary expense and over the objections of London's autonomous boroughs, a new sewer is the last best hope for saving the city from intolerable conditions, including the epidemics of cholera, dysentery and typhoid that sweep through the population with alarming frequency.

William, an emotionally scarred veteran of the Crimean War, throws himself into this work, hoping to quiet the memories of that ghastly military adventure. He reminds himself again and again that a successful engineer is "regular in his habits, steady, disciplined, methodical in his problem-solving." William is ordinarily a paragon of those virtues, but when the pressure of maintaining that regulated life becomes too much for him, he slinks deep into the sewer to slash his arms and thighs with a knife.

Clark has created a tragic, deeply sympathetic man, incapable of reconciling the horrors of his battle experience with the prim regularity of Victorian life. At home, he's a gentle husband to his ferociously cheery wife; at the office, he's an aloof but brilliant engineer. But sometimes -- oh, sometimes -- the strain is overwhelming, and only the knife can relieve him, make him feel alive, provide him with a pain "on the outside . . . something he could hold on to, something he could control." The wincing detail of these self-mutilation scenes raises the novel's pitch -- which is always high -- to a shriek.

Clark can explain everything about the 80 miles of London sewer tunnels from elevation vectors to brick density, but she also knows how to hyperventilate the gothic horror of this subterranean world, soaring into fits of narrative excess that recall the strange pleasure of reading Edgar Allan Poe. With a nod to Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, she follows this poor man as he desperately tries to quell his demons or at least keep them secret. Seeing the scars all over him, his wife wants to believe he's just careless, but his competitors at work are eager to discredit him as a freak. As William's family and professional responsibilities grow, his anxiety about being discovered swells, sending him back underground for more savage cuts in "the one place where the world was steady."

After a particularly severe episode, he awakens to discover that a man he fought with at work has been found brutally stabbed in the sewer. As Clark has devilishly constructed it, the evidence against William couldn't be more damning. Murderous fantasies in his diary don't look good. At this crisis point, William's feverish story merges with the tale of a sewer scavenger named Long Arm Tom and his rat-catching dog. Regularly violating the laws of Parliament and nature to search the sewers, Tom may hold the clue to William's salvation, but he has no reason to give it up, and William's not convinced he deserves salvation anyhow.

Well-researched novels about giant civil-engineering projects have become something of a specialized genre lately -- and they're surprisingly entertaining, even if you're not excited by stress factors and flow rates. Two years ago, John Griesmer's Signal and Noise traced the laying of the first transatlantic cable along with the age's fascination with spiritualism. And last year, in Waterborne, Bruce Murkoff constructed a moving story around the Hoover Dam. How nice to see a woman join the men so successfully with her own engineering novel. (Attention Lawrence Summers!)

With its intense olfactory workout, The Great Stink won't be to everyone's taste, but it's a rich work of history and a gripping exploration of the unmentionable currents that run beneath the surface of our lives -- and it reeks of talent. *

Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World.