WEF Member Weaves Suspense, Substance in Debut Novel

April 22, 2020

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Murder in the Primary is the first mystery novel set at a water resource recovery facility. Written by John Seldon, a Water Environment Federation (WEF; Alexandria, Va.) Life Member, the recently published novel balances the technical aspects of wastewater treatment with the suspense of a murder mystery. Image courtesy of Rock’s Mills Press (Oakville, Ontario)

Water resource recovery facilities (WRRFs) and the wastewater treatment profession have been the subject of thousands of research papers, technical manuals, and field guides. However, existing literature on wastewater treatment has long lacked a key element that could help make the crucial work performed at WRRFs approachable for the average reader: entertainment value.

John Seldon, an Ontario-based Water Environment Federation (WEF; Alexandria, Virginia) member since 1980, recently published Murder in the Primary, the first mystery novel set at a WRRF. The unique novel interweaves a suspenseful narrative with the specialized technical background of Seldon’s setting and characters, written in a way that appeals to readers both within and outside the water sector.

“Several water professionals read one or another draft of the book. The first reaction, almost to a person, was considerable surprise when told I was asking them to critique a murder mystery focused on a wastewater plant,” Seldon said. 

Writing From Experience

Murder in the Primary follows Walter Stillwell, superintendent of the fictional Port Talbot WRRF. One morning, Stillwell receives a call from the facility’s foreman. He soon learns that a man has been found dead in one of the WRRF’s primary treatment basins. As Stillwell and his staff work with police to investigate the incident, readers gradually uncover who was behind the murder and why it occurred.

In Seldon’s almost-50-year career in wastewater, part of which he spent as superintendent of the Barrie (Ontario) Water Resource Recovery Facility, he has never stumbled upon any murders. However, the author acknowledges similarities between himself and his protagonist.

“The biggest overlap is reflected in my organizational approach to managing a WRRF,” Seldon said. “But Walter is smarter than me philosophically and better grounded than when I was his age.”

While Seldon’s career has exposed him to many segments of the water profession — including stints in field research, management, advocacy, and more — Stillwell has spent his entire career at the Port Talbot WRRF.

“Walter provides invaluable historical continuity for his plant and personal career. I embraced episodic change in the workplace and only now, with writing, am I tying it all together,” Seldon said. “No small irony there.”

In some ways, the Port Talbot WRRF setting also draws on Seldon’s experiences managing the Barrie WRRF. Stillwell, as Seldon once did, performs twice-daily, full-facility walkthroughs with his foreman, and manages an 11-person workforce following the same composition of professional roles, for example.

“The Barrie plant, and especially its wonderful operators, inspired me,” Seldon described.

From Author to Novelist

While Murder in the Primary marks Seldon’s debut as a novelist, he is no stranger to writing about wastewater. Seldon has authored dozens of technical articles primarily aimed at operators, covering such topics as process treatment, biosolids, and regulations. But whether describing Stillwell’s meticulous morning routine or the optimal polymer dosage rates for sludge conditioning, both forms of writing require imagination, Seldon said.

“The empiricist takes data and evaluates it. This requires her to have the imagination to connect both to historical data and seek for common ground as well as appreciate that if the data doesn’t fit a normative pattern, to go outside the box and seek an alternative, novel conclusion,” Seldon said. “The fiction writer uses data to dress up a subjective, human story. The data in fiction can be made to make sense or to confuse the storyline.”

The process did, however, require Seldon to keep his affinity for analysis and interpretation in check.

“I had to let my characters be themselves. I had to write about finding truths undefined by numbers,” he said.

Between writing, editing, and constant revisions with the help of colleagues and friends, the author estimates that producing Murder in the Primary took about 2.5 years. While continuing his work as a writer and advocate for the wastewater operations community, Seldon then connected with Rock’s Mills Press (Oakville, Ontario), who helped guide him through 6 months of final edits before eventually publishing earlier this year.

“Facing deadlines has a way of exorcizing procrastination,” Seldon said.

Building a Bridge

When characters with little-discussed professions become relatable figures in books, movies, and other media, they can help change perceptions of their entire industry. The Indiana Jones series, for example, brought archaeology from universities into theaters and livings rooms around the world.

While Murder in the Primary marks John Seldon’s debut as a novelist, he has published dozens of technical materials on wastewater treatment concepts and served in a vast number of professional water-sector roles during his nearly 50-year career. Image courtesy of Rock’s Mills Press (Oakville, Ontario)

For Seldon, part of the reasoning behind setting a murder mystery at a WRRF was to “build a bridge to the entire community,” and demonstrate for general readers that the “urban world is underpinned by the water sector.” He also wanted to give everyday heroes that work in water treatment a literary hero to whom they can relate, he said.

“The water sector is on a one-way cultural path; literary characters from outside our working community make it into our professional world. But when and where do we find memorable characters from the water sector community given voice in the broader community?” Seldon said. “Give water sector people their own professional heroes and they will find a kinship and share them with the whole community.”

Injecting creativity and humanity into how readers view wastewater treatment is also important as WRRFs attempt to elevate their profile in their communities. Pairing information with entertainment can help convey ideas and feelings that information alone cannot.

“As a general statement, we need the fine arts,” Seldon said. “Data alone is sterile. Engineering without studying English is barren of life, operating a WRRF without music is just mechanics, laboratory analysis without art is devoid of kindness and understanding.”

Seldon has already begun working on a sequel to his debut novel, with the working title Murder in the Aeration. Although the sequel will feature a new setting, several characters from Murder in the Primary will return, Seldon said.

Murder in the Primary is available for purchase here, as well as on Amazon.

Justin Jacques, WEF Highlights

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