Under the Bridge by Jack Byrne

Historical Mystery Fiction
Under the Bridge by Jack Byrne, front cover

Under the Bridge by Jack Byrne, A debut crime novel with a title echoing that of a Red Hot Chilli Peppers song. Must be set in Los Angeles, then? Nope, put all thoughts of the US aside, because this Under the Bridge refers to a part of Garston, a run down docklands area of Liverpool.

We arrive there in 2004, as developers are starting to tear down the old and replace it with the new. Garston is finally going to be on the up again! But then the discovery of a skeleton puts a stop to all demolition work and the police are called in. Anne McCarthy is a cub reporter at the local newspaper, The Chronicle, and she’s sent to get the story. The bones pique Anne’s interest. It makes an exciting break from covering cheque presentations, cats up trees and golden wedding celebrations, so she decides to dig deeper into the story behind them.

Meanwhile, her friend Vinny Connolly has plans of his own. He wants to pursue a Master’s degree at Liverpool University, focusing on Irish immigration to the UK after World War II. He doesn’t know it yet, but that subject is about to become central to the whole story in play.

The linchpin to it all is Michael, the elderly Irishman who works at the building site and spotted the bones in the excavated earth. As the narrative skips to and fro, we gradually learn Michael’s story. Put together, the pieces reveal a compelling tale.

Michael arrived in Liverpool after the War, and in the mid 1950s, aged just 19, he was working for Jack Power. Power was bent as a nine-bob note, with fingers in all manner of pies, who used the docks for his own nefarious means, thanks to backhanders to a few coppers who really should have known better. Michael may be young, but he’s tough, savvy and streetwise and he soon finds his feet. There’s plenty to keep him busy, so long as he doesn’t ask too many questions. So a young man on the up and up – but fast forward and these days he’s a glorified night watchman. Just how did that fall from grace occur and how is it connected to the body found on the building site?

Author Byrne weaves threads of historical detail throughout this book, really bringing to life the post-war deprivations of 1950s Britain. It is obvious that he knows Liverpool very well and that depth of knowledge helps to bring the locale vividly into focus. There’s also a neat juxtaposition between a city on its uppers and the Liverpool of the early 21st century, preparing to become city of culture and optimistic about a bright new future.

Characterization is a little spotty. I warmed to Anne, although she is a little soft around the edges for a regional hack, but Vinny veers towards the annoying, and the perhaps too detailed exploration of his research plans tended to put on the brakes as the narrative gathers momentum. But together they make an engaging pair and I was interested to learn that there will be more books in this series.

Under the Bridge crosses several genres. It has elements of murder mystery, plenty of historical crime and even a soupçon of romance – so plenty to attract readers to this new name in crime fiction. Byrne has an easy, colloquial style that fits in well with the urban setting and his descriptions of the scruffy, unloved landscape ring true. All in all, this is a solid debut and one that will keep you turning the pages