Stories are essential to us. Those who say our obsession with the extraordinary
story of Madeleine McCann is shamefully prurient, sentimental or commercial may
be partly right, but they are missing the point.
We need great stories, and have done so time out of mind, to enable us to
understand the world and our places in it.
Our fascination with Madeleine’s unfolding story - most of it speculation and
fantasy - has a great deal more to do with ourselves than with her or her
parents. And her parents have deliberately awakened and fed this elemental
appetite for a story, to the point where only the most high-minded or
unimaginative can be indifferent to it.
Bruno Bettelheim, the psychologist who worked with damaged children, wrote a
wonderful book called The Uses of Enchantment in which he discussed how fairy
stories - some of them extremely frightening - enable children to confront their
worst fears and anxieties. The tales enable children to measure themselves
against them from a place of safety in the real world, as opposed to the dark
forests and treacherous icy wastes of the world of the fairy tale. That is the
ancient function of all stories.
Madeleine’s story is not enchanting in the ordinary sense, but it has cast the
spell of the fairy tale over the public imagination. And the adult version of
the fairy tale is the detective story, the thriller, the whodunnit. That’s why
this story has brought out the Miss Marple, the Sherlock Holmes or the Kay
Scarpetta in all of us.
We are all - apart from the most implausibly high-minded - trying to take
control of this nightmarish, archetypal story by understanding it and measuring
ourselves against it. The public response to it, no matter how mawkish and
gossipy, is not necessarily frivolous, any more than it is frivolous to read
Hansel and Gretel or The Silence of the Lambs.
Thrillers are moral puzzles in which good contends with evil. The reader is
invited to accompany the detective, and often to become the detective, to puzzle
out the truth of some great wrong and put it right. It is probably because this
idea is so simple and because, in real life, wrong isn’t always put right or
understood that thrillers are usually considered an inferior form of fiction -
not “serious”. I don’t think they are necessarily inferior. I even wrote one, in
the 1980s, called The Eye of the Beholder but no doubt it has long been out of
As an avid reader of detective stories I feel there is something both
fascinating and serious about seeing events as moral puzzles; it’s not just a
tabloid taste. Reading Agatha Christie or Elmore Leonard may not be as
sophisticated as reading Dostoevsky, but it is not so very different; it is
where many people get their sentimental education.
The McCanns’ story so far, with all possible respect to their feelings, is an
extremely good thriller. At every new development, every new rumour, a new
question emerges, a new challenge for our forensic or psychological skills, for
our Miss Marple-like moral intuition.
Why, for instance, did the grieving mother, the beautiful blonde mater dolorosa,
wash Madeleine’s Cuddle Cat? Surely any innocent woman would want to cling to
the last traces of the scent of her child; a guilty woman might want to hide
forensic evidence. On the other hand, my dear Watson, perhaps the toy was just
genuinely dirty, having been touched by so many superstitious wellwishers that
any scent of the missing girl had long since disappeared as well. Is Kate
McCann’s quiet self-control a sign of great courage, to which we should all
aspire, or is it a sign of coldness? Would coldness suggest guilt?
Above all, this story tempts us to put ourselves in the McCanns’ place. What if,
on one of those times when you or I left our children unsupervised, they had
disappeared? What if, for that matter, in a moment of terrible bad luck I had
accidentally killed my own child while in a hick town in Portugal? This story
has made me realise that I would most certainly try to cover it up. I would
almost certainly try to persuade my husband to help me. One does not have to be
an ignorant xenophobe to find the thought of handing oneself over to the
Portuguese criminal justice system unacceptable; one has only to look at the
abysmal way in which the authorities there have handled Madeleine’s case to feel
justified in doing almost anything to stay out of their clumsy clutches. Even in
Britain the criminal justice system is not entirely reliable. My children’s and
my husband’s lives would be ruined as well as mine in a nightmare of jail,
foster care and disgrace.
The horrible suspicions surrounding Madeleine’s mother have made me understand
that there are some circumstances in which I might feel entirely morally
justified in trying to cover up such an accident. In the newspaper shop on
Saturday morning a woman aggressively asked us all: “Innocent or guilty?”
In the real world such questions are, or ought to be, or used to be,
impermissible in public. In the real world we must presume that the unhappy
parents are innocent until proved guilty. I believe they are innocent, almost as
wholly as I believe in the presumption of innocence. However, in the magical
world of stories, people can and should imagine what they like. In this case
they are doing exactly that. The swathes of speculation on the internet and the
horrifyingly tasteless musical video tributes to Madeleine are nothing short of
It is the McCanns’ misfortune, and perhaps their miscalculation, that by seeking
publicity and trying to manipulate it, by hiring media managers, raising money,
starting a blog and encouraging others to meet in cyberspace, they shifted their
predicament out of ordinary reality into the world of virtual reality - which is
the unreal world of thrillers and fairy stories.
In virtual reality there are no rules; it is chaos, for us to make sense of as
best we can. The internet is the Pandora’s box of our time. Nobody can shut it,
but one of the many morals of this story is that anyone in trouble should stay
well away from cyberspace.