The McCann case is all in our minds

Now the idea that "the parents might have done it" has been officially introduced, the speculation h

So the McCanns have returned home. And what a homecoming. It was never going to be a pleasant experience for them, nor even a barely tolerable one, but the global media mob surrounding them last weekend seemed excessive by any standards. At the time of writing, the public prosecutor in Portugal was deciding whether charges should be brought against them.

It would be foolish for anyone not in possession of the same documents as the public prosecutor to make any assumptions about this case. All anyone else can really say is that, as yet, there is no hard evidence in the public domain. But that's not very satisfying, is it? Crucially, it's not news, in a highly emotive case where news, any news, is all any one wants.

So instead, the case has become a story about a story, where known facts - of which there are few (or, rather, none, save the unexplained disappearance of a child) - are not being allowed to get in the way of the theories, of which there are thousands, voiced by any amateur detective you care to meet.

From the outset, and while this case simply remained "every parent's worst nightmare", widespread theorising was always inevitable. Now the idea that "the parents might have done it" has been officially introduced, the speculation has gone stratospheric.

One of the oddest things about it is the strength of opinion from onlookers in the face of next to no evidence. It is possible to meet many people at the moment who claim to "know" the truth about what happened (whether sympathetic to the McCanns or not) - and to have "known" it from the beginning. They stick to their story irrespective of anything reported in the media, only choosing to believe reports that confirm what their initial instincts already told them. There is almost a sense that any real conclusion might be disappointing: they may still hope for the best or fear the worst, but really they just don't want to know that they guessed wrong.

This is rather depressing - actually, it's very depressing - but the desire to construct a narrative is entirely natural and one of the strongest impulses of the human condition. Even more desperate than the desire for a story, we want a satisfying conclusion: we want to know the "truth" about what happened. When the truth is not forthcoming - or is heavily delayed - we can't stand it. We impose our own narrative, which once it is repeated often enough becomes the story in itself.

This is what has happened with the McCanns. And in the absence of any real truth, the situation that has emerged tells us more about ourselves than anything we think we know about the case. While no real evidence that Madeleine is alive or dead has been made public, we must make do with the unsatisfactory state of not knowing. The human mind, however, craves resolution. And so as time goes on, everyone sees in the story and its protagonists exactly what they want to see. Everyone draws their own conclusion and believes it.

It is pointless and naive to blame people for being interested. It's even more wrong-headed to pretend, as many have protested, that people have lost interest. They haven't. (If you're one of the few who has, then why have you read this far?) The fact is, even if and when the mystery is solved, people will always be fascinated. Whether there are any real developments or real evidence is increasingly irrelevant: the story now has its own momentum in people's minds, independent of factual events.

The international scale of the case is a sign that this is not a British problem. As the possible imaginary scenarios multiply and the likelihood of new evidence shrinks, the case is taking on the qualities of an elaborately plotted novel. For the McCanns the secondary plot - the campaign, the accusations, the trial by media - threatens to overshadow the real story - Madeleine's disappearance. Or maybe it's too late and this has already happened.

This month's opening of the film version of Ian McEwan's novel Atonement should serve as a timely warning. This is another story about a story. It's about what happens when evidence takes second place to instinct and assumption. Two small children go missing - an event which clouds everyone's judgement. A girl imagines she has witnessed a crime and constructs the facts she needs. The innocent are convicted, the guilty walk free, lives are ruined.

Atonement is a mesmerising morality tale about the all-too-human desire to impose a narrative before all the facts are known. It succeeds as a fiction because it has the ring of truth. In real life, however, we need to look beyond the story and wait patiently for the facts. In the case of Madeleine McCann - unless she can suddenly be found, dead or alive - this may take a very long time indeed.

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2007 issue of the New Statesman, How the Americans misled Blair over Iraq