Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
A tale of murder and deceit set in Europe's most legendary city, The Great Stink
takes readers inside a little-known chapter of Victorian history. Beneath the
streets of London, where sewers sprawl for miles and infested tunnels stoke
raging epidemics, engineer William May goes to work. He is part of a team
charged with shoring up this subterranean realm and, as his wife often reminds
him, though the assignment is grueling it is nonetheless a plum job.
William is no stranger to horrific scenes; he is still haunted by memories of
recent combat on the front lines of the Crimean War. His new work brings
unexpected peace to his troubled mind. But once he uncovers a dangerous web of
government corruption, perpetrated by the man who controls William's livelihood,
he loses his tenuous hold on sanity, and the ghosts of his past are unleashed.
When the deception culminates in murder, William becomes the sole suspect. Only
a sewer scavenger holds the key to proving whether he is guilty-a question
William himself cannot answer with certainty.
Combining the pace of a page-turner and written by a marvelously talented
historical writer, The Great Stink is a riveting debut. We hope the following
questions will enhance your discussion of this unforgettable novel.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
How were you affected by the novel's underground setting?
Besides the sewers of London, what other "underground" worlds exist in The
What enables Robert Rawlinson to act with compassion toward
William, while so many others treat him harshly? What were your first
impressions of William, particularly as the story of his survival at Balaclava
In what way did the novel's shifting points of view enhance
the suspense? What were your images of the narrator in the chapters that
What did you discover about the Crimean War through this
novel? How does it compare to current conflicts in the regions affected by
In chapter 11, William passes his psychiatric examination,
though he is confined to an asylum soon after. What criteria were used in
attempting to diagnose his mental illness? How might the Victorians have
perceived twenty-first-century approaches to psychiatric disorders? As a war
veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress, how would William have fared in
the modern world?
William's recommendation to use more durable (though more
expensive) bricks leads him to a dangerous crossroads between the private and
public sectors. Is the level of corruption portrayed in The Great Stink a
relic of history or is it still present today?
What does William's self-mutilation indicate about the nature
of his mental anguish? How does his particular compulsion reflect his
experiences and his view of himself?
Is Polly a sympathetic character throughout the novel? How
would you have responded to William had you been in her situation? Do you
predict that she will be able to recapture the intensive love and tenderness
she once bestowed on him? Was it unreasonable for her to focus so heavily on
her husband's earning potential?
Tom is clearly an opportunist, though his approach to life is
related to his poverty and illiteracy. Should we make a distinction between
his choice of money over morality and the same choice made by Mr. Hawke?
Why did Mr. Hawke go to such lengths to buy Lady? Is he simply
betting on her ability to win, or does he realize how losing her will affect
Tom personally? What does Mr. Hawke's presence at the Badger, and his interest
in the ratter competitions, tell us about him? Were you surprised by the true
identity of the Captain and Mr. Hawke?
When you first read the scene in chapter 11 in which Mr.
England threatens William, followed by the chilling events in the tunnel, did
you think William was capable of murder? At what point was he exonerated in
What motivated the inexperienced Mr. Rose to risk so much in
exchange for his client's freedom? Was he na-ive or shrewd?
Did Mr. Hawke deserve the death penalty? Did he deserve the
prison-ship treatment he surely received once he traded places with William?
In your opinion, what has spurred Western penal reforms over the past century?
Discuss the role of botany in the novel, through the plants
William uses as a soothing litany. Why does Polly resist the promise of fresh
air and a job that suits William's true calling in the book's final
How does this novel complement the other London literature you have read?
What makes this city's underbelly so compelling?
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Harvest Books.
Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.
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