You might not think that the subject of solid waste management would lend itself to a murder mystery. It would seem to be a stretch, wouldn’t it? Although Wasted: Murder in the Recycle Berkeley Yard by John Byrne Barry is packaged as just that, it might be fairer to characterize it as a novel about corporate crime. There’s a murder in the novel, and a mystery to be solved, but it’s a long time coming in the plot, which is concerned much more with the relationship between the homegrown “Recycle Berkeley” collective and a massive international corporation called Consolidated Scavenger, which is clearly a stand-in for Waste Management.

Love, betrayal, recycling

The plot of Wasted revolves around a set of characters suitable for a soap opera, Berkeley-style. Barb has recently left her crazy lover, Doug, after nearly a decade. Brian, having been obsessively in love with her all that time, has just broken up with his wife, Eileen, and is now sleeping in his office. Doug may be Brian’s best friend, though that’s hard to understand, as Doug appears to be both insane and abusive and has no friends at all.

Wasted: Murder in the Recycle Berkeley Yard by John Byrne Barry @@@@ (4 out of 5)

At the center of this (triangle? rectangle?) lies Recycle Berkeley, known to one and all as Re-Be, the collectively run recycling center that contracts with the City of Berkeley to collect the community’s reusable solid waste. Barb, having helped Doug build Re-Be since the beginning, has now taken a corporate job with Re-Be’s nemesis, Consolidated Scavenger. Naturally, this has sent Doug over the edge (assuming he wasn’t there all along). Brian is hoping to jump-start a new career as an investigative journalist, and Doug has persuaded him to write about what he believes to be the corporation’s criminal efforts to undermine Re-Be. The result, a series of exposes published in a local free weekly newspaper, is underway as Wasted begins. As the story unfolds, we learn progressively more about the role of organized crime in the corporation’s history and its underhanded and possibly criminal tactics to absorb small competitors. Anyone familiar with the history of Waste Management will recognize these allegations.

Adding tension and urgency to the tale is the imminent end of Re-Be’s contract with the City. At the same time, City Council elections are approaching, and one Councilmember is determined to oust Re-Be and steer the contract instead to Consolidated Scavenger. Re-Be is backing her challenger, a member of the leftist political party that will gain a majority on the Council if she is elected.

Does all this sound like Berkeley to you? I’ve lived here for nearly half a century, and I must say it does to me.

Murder in the recycling yard

To the best of my knowledge, nobody has ever been murdered in the facilities of the Ecology Center, which operates Berkeley’s recycling program. Nor could one Councilmember hold so much sway over the City’s recycling contract or be so much in the public eye, as the novel implies; the Mayor would be far more likely to be featured by the news media. It also seems unlikely that such an obviously deranged person as Doug could hold on for a decade in charge of a complex million-dollar business.

However, with all that said, Wasted is nonetheless a satisfying read (and would probably be more so for someone who doesn’t know much about Berkeley). The author writes well, he understands the recycling business, and he successfully builds suspense to a crescendo. Despite my grumbling about the liberties taken for the sake of simplicity in crafting this story, I enjoyed the book.

About the author

According to an interview with the author that appeared on the local website Berkeleyside, John Byrne Barry “lived in Berkeley for 30 years, served on the board of the Ecology Center, and wrote about recycling issues for local publications, including the East Bay Express.” The Express is a free weekly newspaper much like the paper in the novel. Barry has since written a second novel, Bones in the Wash: Politics is Tough, Family is Tougher, set in New Mexico during the 2008 Presidential campaign.

For additional reading

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