The Hero’s Journey in “The Pembrokeshire Murders”

In the opening scenes of The Pembrokeshire Murders, Det Supt Steve Wilkins (Luke Evans) folds a dishcloth with the kind of precision that suggests he is a Good Detective, while hinting that he would be a nightmare to live with. It is a good symbol of the kind of neat, compact drama that will follow, which relies on forensic detail and expertly honed instincts. The three-parter is based on the real-life investigation into the killing of Peter and Gwenda Dixon, the couple robbed and shot dead while walking on a coastal path in Pembrokeshire in 1989. It took two decades for the culprit to be brought to justice, and this is an elegant retelling of how it happened.

There is never any real doubt about who is responsible for those murders, and eventually more – not least because John Cooper, the prime suspect, is played by Keith Allen, never more at home than he is here – so as a drama, it has to find its friction outside of a whodunnit framework. It is 2006, the Queen is turning 80, and Tony Blair is still in charge. Wilkins, newly returned to Pembrokeshire from London, is set on reopening the coastal path case, which he thinks he can solve. It is gripping and tense from the off.

The original investigation was fraught with issues, even though Cooper was in the frame at the time of the murders. His long-suffering wife provided him with an alibi, accepted by a junior officer who happened to drink in the same pub as the suspect.

Wilkins has a crack at it, soon piecing together another double murder, of two siblings killed at a farmhouse in 1985, and a violent sexual attack on a group of teenagers in 1996. Both fit the parameters of the coastal path killings, and he realises that he is potentially looking for a serial killer. Enter Allen as the chillingly cool Cooper, imprisoned for a series of robberies and about to face a parole hearing. Wilkins needs urgent permission to reopen the case and dig deeper. At a hearing, he encounters the paradox of his work. “Where’s your hard evidence, Steve?” asks his chief constable. “It’s waiting for us to find, ma’am,” he says, gravely.

There is the odd clunky line (“Men like him? They always kill again”), but this is full of top-notch performances. Evans is great as Wilkins, whose loneliness forms part of his drive, as is the case with almost all decent TV cops. This is classy and wise enough to give him enough background to round him out as a character, while recognising that this is not his story, and nor, really, is it Cooper’s. The Pembrokeshire Murders is respectful of the victims, and viewers would be hard pressed to find even a hint of glory in Cooper’s violent, rotten, opportunistic crimes.

The drama, then, comes from working out how the police will finally nail him. A secret task force is assembled to investigate old evidence, to see if new technology might aid the discovery of DNA that was previously missed. Cold cases are, explains Wilkins, 99% forensics, and this is about the importance of the tiniest of details. They are looking for a “golden nugget” that can tie Cooper to the scene and the victims at that precise moment in history.

When a local reporter approaches the force about a documentary on the killings – he, too, has made a connection between the 1985 and 1989 murders – it shines a light on the fragile truce between the police and the media, which once branded the force “institutionally incompetent” after the initial investigation, chilling relations somewhat. But Wilkins is a smooth operator, appealing to the journalist’s better nature and steering his interest towards a long, slow trap designed to ensnare Cooper.

Viewers seem to devour dramas about true-life killings. Less competent entries into the genre can wade through murky waters, particularly in terms of whether it is decent, or not, to delve into the stories of those whose relatives are still alive. But to my mind, The Pembrokeshire Murders is a perfect example of how to do it well. It is sensitive when it needs to be, and never loses sight of who suffered. Ultimately, it is about how the victims were given justice, no matter how long it took, and of the painstaking, precise detective work involved.