The Force

The banality of evil is laid bare in Hampshire

“Unprecedented" being one of the most exhaustingly overused words in the English language, it would be something of an understatement to say that I treated with scepticism the claim that the makers of The Force (started 13 October, 9pm, Channel 4) had gained "unprecedented access" to Hampshire Constabulary. What police force in its right mind would enable such access? And even if it did, wouldn't that be tricky from a legal point of view?

So, although I knew that the series had been directed by Patrick Forbes, the genius responsible for the BBC's sublime documentaries about English Heritage, I had pretty much convinced myself that I was in for a réalité version of Crimewatch, all boring coppers talking in boring voices about "disgusting crimes" and "terrible tragedies" - the only difference being that, rather than having to suck in their bellies for the benefit of Kirsty Young, these detectives would demolish Kit Kats, and other vending machine delights, with slobbish abandon.

But I was wrong, and not only about the slobbishness (our hero, DCI Jason Hogg, looks about 12 and has a degree in theology from Oxford; he probably prefers yoghurt to saturated fats). The Force is compelling television, the kind that you watch with a queasy feeling, and all your fingers crossed. It has been carefully made, over a period of several years, and beautifully edited, and it tells you a great deal more about 21st-century Britain than anything in Ian Rankin.

Murder, it turns out, is just as horrifying as the crime writers would have it, but it is also more banal. It happens in bedsits and flats and suburban houses, on ordinary spring afternoons, with the traffic going by and the television blaring out on the other side of a party wall, and often for no greater or more exciting reason than that one human being has annoyed another. As for the clean-up, murderers must be practical, and there is something almost comical in the way they set about disposing of evidence. You'd laugh out loud if it weren't that someone's mother, or sister, or daughter is in the suitcase they must now drag uneasily behind them.

In the first film, a charred body was found in a suitcase by a rural footpath. I don't have space to describe precisely how detectives deduced that the body belonged to Sylwia Sobczak, a 26-year-old Polish woman who worked at a London hotel, and that the man who disposed of it was her colleague and sometime lover, 27-year-old Ziaul Haque. It was complicated. Who knew that a sample taken from a blackened corpse can prove whether the petrol that made it so was from BP, or Total? But in any case, it was only after we had names and faces that the film really began to work on me. By now, I understood that Haque was guilty; if he'd been innocent, we would not be seeing his face like this.

Yet somehow this didn't matter. There was high drama, and deep pathos, in the smaller mysteries that radiated from the centre of the story like spokes on a wheel. Where had this nervous, nondescript man, whose interviews under caution we heard, but did not see, been living for the past two months? Was it where Sylwia had died? Why had he killed her? On and on the police went, chipping away at his stories, his bank accounts and his mobile-phone records until, finally, they pitched up at a two-bedroomed high rise in Hackney, in the East End.

The place had been converted into three tiny bedsits, a pathetic detail that clutched at the heart far more violently than the sight of incident tape and a white tent in the corner of a field. Nevertheless, bedsits or no bedsits, the block had CCTV, and so it was that we saw Haque entering the building with a large suitcase that he was able to carry with only one hand, and then, a little later, leaving it, the suitcase now so heavy that he could barely pull it from the lift. I watched this, mouth open, scalp prickling with horror. It was an image more indelible than anything the television dramatists could have come up with. A woman-hater lugging a suitcase to a Vauxhall Cavalier. How mundane, and yet how hateful.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 19 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The Strange Death of Labour England