Madeleine McCann: The face that's haunted us all for eight months

David Randall explains why the photographs of a missing child, her parents and a suspect have retained the power to mesmerise and horrify us
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With the really big crimes, it's always the pictures that linger in the mind long after the details have become muddled, or lost in the attics of our minds. This year, as midwinter makes us cast backward glances, three images persist. There are the Darwins he supposedly dead, she the insurance beneficiary posing in Panama like nincompoops for a property man's publicity shot that will be Exhibit A in their future trial. And, via one night of sickening but unsolved violence in a student house in Perugia, comes the bright-eyed look of Meredith Kercher on her Facebook site, wearing the party-girl smile that will now never grow old.

And then there is Madeleine. No other word or detail is needed. Before even the third syllable is spoken, there she is in your mind: the blonde hair, almost unbearably cute face, and impish grin; a haunting, indelible part of that arcade of awfulness which includes the faces of Sarah Payne, Holly and Jessica, and so on right back to the gaunt and startled faces of Ian Brady and Myra Hindley's victims buried on Saddleworth Moor more than 40 years ago.

Those were working-class kids from the black and white Sixties. Photographs of them were few, the taking of them a special occasion. Madeleine was different. The child of middle-class, digitised, gadget-familiar parents, she'd been snapped, cropped, enhanced and videoed since she was born. Within a day of her abduction on 3 May, a steady stream of high-resolution, downloadable images began to be released: Madeleine in a pink top, clutching close to her chest more tennis balls than she can comfortably handle, those laughing close-ups, her in an Everton shirt, and, most recently, on a pony. But it's not the detail or context that's memorable. It's that face. If Hollywood were casting a little girl as a victim of an abduction, this is what she would look like. Directors could search the books of a thousand child modelling agencies and not better that mixture of prettiness and vulnerability and with the iris of her right eye, shaped like a keyhole, the utterly memorable detail.

The surprising thing, then, is not that there were so many sightings from Belgium, Malta, Bosnia, Argentina, Morocco, and Portugal but so few. With her image coming at us on front pages, posters, websites, television and cinema screens, there could not, in the summer at least, have been a sentient human being in Europe who would fail to pick her out at an identity parade.

Ditto her parents. These were successful thirtysomethings from Central Casting. Whether it was walking down a street or going in and out of church, they were memorably even, to some people, enviably attractive: she clutching Cuddle Cat, both never in a mess, and never red-eyed or blotchy faced. But, as the year and the media-savvy "Find Madeleine" campaign went on, there was something about this pair of health-conscious, neatly coiffed, always composed young professionals that aroused resentment in some quarters.

There were always some who criticised them for leaving their children to go to a bar with friends, but a more visceral dislike of them surfaced, most prominently from the pen of Booker prize winner Anne Enright. What people were reacting to was not the McCanns themselves, whom they could not know, but their appearance and media image, something quite different. They seemed never caught off-guard, and maybe it would have better if they had been, for what people saw was not the usual disintegrating parents at a press conference, but, for instance, a couple on a whistle-stop tour of Europe: in Rome for the Pope, then Germany, the Netherlands and Morocco, plus Gerry jetting off to the United States.

They began to look, to casual newspaper readers, more like celebrities than victims. And then there were those pictures of them back in Praia da Luz. It wasn't their fault that their child had gone missing in a warm climate, but the result was that, in the early days, photographed as they walked about Praia, hand-in-hand and still clad in holiday togs, they didn't look like they were living Every Parent's Worst Nightmare (copyright Evening Standard) but like two well-known faces on vacation. It was a reaction that says more about us, the consumers of 24-hour media, demanding that every player in the news drama conforms to a stereotype, than it does about them.

And, together with their photographs, came that familiar aerial shot of the Ocean Club resort, a dreadful dotted line plotting a walk that millions who have never set foot in Portugal could, having absorbed it on scores of newspaper spreads, now perform blindfold: the one from the McCanns' apartment to the tapas bar, where they dined with friends but sans children every night. How far was it? (70-80 yards). How often were the children checked on? (Three times). Could the sleeping children be heard from the bar? (No) Could the apartment's French windows, left deliberately unlocked, be seen from the bar? (No). And from those answers, and with the benefit of hindsight, came those questions which everyone asked back in May, and which the McCanns, unless Madeleine is found alive, will ask themselves till their dying day: Why didn't they leave her at the crche? Why didn't they hire a babysitter? Why didn't one parent sit with the children? Why them? Why Madeleine? Or, just plain: why?

Soon, another image: that of a dark-haired bespectacled Englishman. Seen first in the background of those pictures of the searchers at the resort, he was now the subject of close-ups. His name was Robert Murat, a 33-year-old property dealer who lived nearby, with his mother. His fingerprints taken, DNA swabbed, computer examined, past raked over, house searched, and garden dug up, he remains that one word of Portuguese all of us now know: arguido, an official suspect. So, too, do the McCanns. There were, said the Portuguese police, discrepancies in the accounts given by Gerry and Kate, and differences between what they claimed and their fellow diners, the Tapas Nine as they were now known, reported.

Armchair detectives, their experience of serious crimes confined to TV dramas where the most unlikely character can generally be assumed to be the killer, constructed ever more rococo theories. Murat crept from his mother's sitting room, abducted Madeleine, killed her, disposed of the body, and returned home before mum had noticed he'd gone. The McCanns, both thinking it was their turn to give Madeleine a sleeping draught to keep her quiet while they caroused, had unwittingly administered a fatal overdose, and then hidden the body inside the apartment so the police would not find it. And, in a throwback to the days when missing British girls were said to have been sold into the white slave trade, Madeleine had been kidnapped by an international gang of paedophiles.

Then, four months into the inquiry, came the first suggestion of hard evidence, and with it, a new image: that of the McCanns' holiday hire car. This pictured stationary, with the hatchback open, or being driven by Gerry with a stony-faced Kate beside him was supposedly the repository for such a quantity of Madeleine's DNA that it could only be have been left by her body being placed directly in it. The couple were re-interviewed separately (Kate for 11 hours), and pictures of the sunlit white church, where the McCanns had found solace throughout their stay in the resort, were now shown in a different light. This, read lurid captions, is the place police are searching to see if, as the latest theory had it, the McCanns could have hidden the body there before its disposal. (DNA samples from the vehicle and apartment were sent for study to the Forensic Science Service laboratory in Birmingham, but, in the three months since, nothing conclusive by way of results has been reported.)

The Tapas Nine remained a faceless Greek chorus, but the images of other minor characters like police chief Goncalo Amaral, and McCann campaign PR man Clarence Mitchell came and went. And, latterly, amid the finger pointing by the Murat side and "friends" of the McCanns, there was the posturing by the Spanish private detective agency hired by the McCann campaign. So far, they have promised much ("We are very, very close" they assured everyone in mid-November), but delivered little. And we now steel ourselves (although not nearly as much as the McCanns must be doing) for the thought of these two doctors and their twins beside the tree on Christmas Day. The missing face we can supply ourselves. It has haunted us all since May, and will continue to do so for a very long time to come.

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