"Unfortunately, it isn't like it is on the TV," someone said, two or three days into the murder investigation featured in The Force. It was quite like it is on the television, though. There was the isolated country lane where the burnt remains were discovered by someone walking their dog. There was the white scene-of-crime tent and the white boiler suits. There were promising clues that led to a dead end and the cliffhanger race to charge the prime suspect before the statutory 96 hours ran out. Anyone who's watched even a little television over the last few years may feel that they are already half way to passing their exam to make DCI, and we know more about murder than any other crime, even if most of what we know is slightly skewed. So in some respects you'd seen everything in Operation Fletcher before.
What was different was that this victim – Eastern European, as they so often are in the grittier kind of fiction – was a real person. When the forensic scientist poked his swabs into what had ceased to be her private life and murmured, "Poor little lassie... oh dear", there was a real daughter there on the mortuary slab and a real mother back in Poland, not yet knowing why her child hadn't called recently. And there were other differences too. The stomach contents were tactfully fogged out during the dissection, as the pathologist reported that it "appeared to be spicy, not exactly rice but something a bit like vermicelli". And the investigating team weren't a pack of sombre existentialist philosophers, darkened by their daily contact with human evil. They were office workers with a rush order on, and a lot of annoying paperwork to crunch before they could call it a day.
Crime writers could usefully employ some of the details here to jolt their own creations away from cliché. I liked the police officer with the reggae ringtone on his mobile, skanking away loudly at an inopportune moment. And the bit when a policeman had to give the body-sniffer dog a piggyback through a shop because it wouldn't have been halal to let it walk through. But there was also the banality of the hurdles the team encountered. Attempting to track down a paint sample from a car seen the night before the body was dumped, Detective Chief Inspector Hogg, who looked like a Latin teacher, came up against some unheard jobsworth on the other end of the phone, refusing to give out the number of their German supplier because it was against company policy. The chief inspector didn't erupt into an aria of copper bluster; he just sighed and threw his eyebrows up. And when there was just an hour to get the charge sheet across to the Crime Prosecution Service for approval to go ahead, the firewall wouldn't let the email through because the word "sex" cropped up in the attachment.
What wasn't different was that the whole thing was paced like a thriller, partly achieved by editing (although they date stamped their sequences, so you knew where time had gone) but also because the case delivered a chilling late twist of corroboration. They pretty much knew they had their man in Mr Haque, a hotel worker who'd had an affair with the dead girl and fitted much of the circumstantial evidence. But they couldn't find the flat where he'd actually committed the murder to get conclusive evidence. Then persistent house-to-house inquiries turned it up – in a block of council flats – and there buried deep in the CCTV footage was video of Mr Haque casually carrying in a large suitcase in one hand and then hauling it out, with obvious difficulty, a few hours later. Before the case came to trial, Mr Haque hanged himself in prison, a development that one of the investigating team described as the only good thing he'd done. I don't think DCI Hogg felt the same way. I think he wanted his hard work to get its proper reward, which was a conviction. But he can perhaps console himself that all that effort won't have gone unseen.
In Around the World in 80 Days, six pairs of celebrities have been sent on a global relay race, dividing the circumnavigation between them. They mustn't fly – and though this hasn't been stated as rule – they have to be filmed doing a variety of picturesque things on the way. Why, you may well ask, given the overwhelming artificiality of the endeavour. "To raise money for Children in Need," came the answer. Oh, OK.. that's all right then... carry on. Your paperwork seems to be in order since you're carrying the universal carte blanche for factitious, life-wasting television. First leg was Lee Mack and Frank Skinner, and it had its moments of comedy (notably Frank Skinner saying, "It's not a bad old life, is it?" to a Serbian princess, as she showed him round her palace). Not enough to justify the hour, though. If I make a donation now, can I be let off watching the rest?