At 2.40 on Thursday afternoon Chief Inspector Colin Handy was entertaining a semicircle of slightly restive cameramen outside 25 Cromwell Street, Gloucester. Chief Inspector Handy was wearing a dark, double-breasted suit, a paisley tie and a blue-striped shirt. He posed casually, his tanned left profile towards the banks of cameras, wearing his habitual expression: the confident smile of the chat-show host.

He wears it when he is explaining the workings of the radar scanner for the 15th time to the lady from the Italian magazine; or working up the Scottish angle for the man from the Scottish daily newspaper; or repeating the day's titbit in serial soundbites for the television news teams last week.

He is rarely floored. Asked by an Argentine journalist for his opinion of the accused's mental state, he replied genially: 'I don't know how you spell it in Portuguese.' If there is a flaw in his PR make-up, it is only that he seems to take a slight, but detectable, pleasure in the attention.

On this occasion, Chief Inspector Handy is keeping the cameramen entertained as they wait for their daily photo-opportunity: today it is the visit of the Home Office pathologist, Professor Bernard Knight, to Cromwell Street, the scene of what is rapidly attaining the status of Britain's worst serial murder case.

The figure of the Home Office pathologist has almost mythic qualities in British grisly murder culture: in the popular retelling of such cases, the detective may be the hero, but it is the work of the Home Office pathologist that allows the reader to linger over the truly sordid detail.

Professor Knight approached the house in front of the bank of cameras. With his rumpled mackintosh and briefcase, he was perfectly in character. It was an added bonus that Professor Knight also pens detective fiction under a pseudonym.

His official mission is to inspect the latest discovery at No 25 - the remains found on Wednesday evening - and to pronounce officially on whether they are human. His public relations value, in an event that is both murder investigation and media circus, is to provide today's offering for the cameras.

There is plenty of action at 25 Cromwell Street: the house has, after all, produced nine sets of human remains in 14 days. But the police activity takes place out of sight. From the street, No 25 presents an unprepossessing blankness to the knots of people who gather on the pavement opposite.

The windows, like those in the rest of the street, are shrouded by lace curtains. The house is a dingy ochre colour and distinguished from its neighbours only by the fact that it is a semi-detached, rather than a terrace house. To the right of the house, the small but notorious extension built by Frederick West obscures the view of the garden. Police seem set to demolish Mr West's extension. To the right of the extension, a stark little Seventh-day Adventist church blocks access.

The activities in the house and garden are a mystery from the street. But still the small crowds linger, some with cameras, chatting, watching, waiting for something to happen that they can incorporate into a personal mythology of the event. Ask them what they are there for and most cannot tell you: 'I was up doing my shopping and I thought I'd come by.' 'My sister was visiting from Bristol and she wanted to come.' But why they wanted to come and what they hoped to see seems lost to them, beyond the inchoate desire to be there.

The exceptions are those who are Interested In Murder. Asked to explain their presence, they reply, quite formally: 'I am very interested in murder.' It is usually the beginning of a recital of texts read, of cases followed, of sites already visited and, occasionally, of trials attended. Most have read 'the book on Dennis Nilsen' and many subscribed to the recent partwork on serial killers. It is not, we are meant to understand, just a voyeur's interest. It is almost scholarly.

The punk from Cheltenham, for instance, his nose a riot of metal and his ragged black clothing hanging off his legs, took on the earnest formality of a passionate stamp collector when asked to talk about his hobby. 'I expect,' he said, 'that you will shortly be visiting a spot very close to my home: Bishop's Cleeve, where they will be digging next week. It's quite hard to swallow,' he said, looking hard at the blank faade of No 25, 'that this has happened in Gloucester. It ought to have happened in America.'

Paul Woodman, a young computer salesman, drove up from Bristol one day last week to take in a visit to Cromwell Street. 'I am absolutely fascinated by murder,' he said. 'I went to Nilsen's house. I don't know why, exactly. Morbid fascination, really. But did you know the absolutely sicko things Nilsen used to do?' Mr Woodman expanded on the killer's habits. 'I would love to meet him in prison,' he said. 'What a guy. I'd love to see what he was like. Do you realise,' he said, waving an arm at the crowded pavement, 'that any of these people could be doing the same thing and you'd never know?'

In the public pronouncements of the authorities of Gloucester - the politicians, the police chief or the bishop - there is much mention of the trauma that the community of Gloucester has suffered and the availability of counselling for those who have suffered. But in the neighbourhood of Cromwell Street, the mood is more of light-hearted profit-taking than grief, or even horror.

In the sunshine of Thursday afternoon, Cromwell Street almost took on a party atmosphere. The scent of marijuana drifted across to the impassive constables outside No 25 from a noisy group of young residents nearby. The door of No 19 stood open as another local builder fixed his front step to a steady barrage of jokes.

Some of the residents of Cromwell Street were trying to work the newly opened market in their life's experiences. 'Would you like to hear my story?' said Shane O'Connor, diverted briefly from the can of beer he held. 'Come with me.'

He led the way briskly across the street and into a bedsit at No 11. 'I haven't talked to anyone yet because I haven't been around,' he said. 'But I knew that Fred West and I knew her. Fred West built the extension on this house and there's a lot of concrete underneath it. Would you like to see it? Would you like to take a picture of it? I knew a bloke that used to go in there, you know, with her. And I knew Eva.'


'The one that got killed.'

'Oh, Heather.'

'Yeah. Evver. So how much do you think my story's worth?'

In St Michael's Square, which lies behind and at a right angle to Cromwell Street, the first drifts of spring blossom dance above an impressive collection of television transmitter vans. Here, on any evening, Chief Inspector Handy can be found moving gracefully from interview to interview. At the bottom of the square, where one side peters out into the back gardens of Cromwell Street, a police ribbon marks the end of public access.

There is constant traffic through the police cordon to the last house in the row, occupied for the past 13 years by Mr Ali and his family. Ring the bell there and Mr Ali invites you into his living-room. If you want to go any farther, you have to negotiate.

What may at one point have been Mr Ali's back garden is now a trampled area of mud in which a large scaffolding platform has been erected for the television teams who can look, from Mr Ali's platform, directly into the garden of 25 Cromwell Street.

'We tried to refuse them,' said Mr Ali. 'But they insisted. We are not really charging, you understand. It's just that we are opening the door a great deal and the heat goes out of the house. The cost of cleaning up, too, is considerable.'

What could Mr Ali offer? 'There is a ladder there,' he said, pointing past the scaffolding to a small aluminium stepladder leaning against the high wooden fence.

The television lights gave the scene behind No 25 a strange theatrical quality. A small digger was rumbling back and forth, moving earth and flagstones. With each pass of its grab, the digger knocked against the row of cypresses that screened the garden of No 25 from its neighbours, filling the night with the scent of bruised cypress. The radar scanner that has indicated to the police where the bodies are buried was tracing out a message. Ten minutes earlier, in Cromwell Street, Chief Inspector Handy had explained to the cameras what it was doing here. 'We had the machine out in the field near Bishop's Cleeve, but we finished there early and we didn't want to have any dead time with the machine . . .' He broke off and giggled. 'Oops, I shouldn't really talk about dead time, should I? I'll just do that one again.'

In his back garden, the non-charging Mr Ali was concluding a deal with a photographer. Some brisk haggling brought the price down to pounds 25 for a visit the next day, to be paid if the police began to demolish the extension. Mr Ali bade goodnight.

Near the top end of St Michael's Square lives the Rev Stephen Eldridge, priest associate of Christ Church and St Mary de Crypt and formerly a constable whose beat included Cromwell Street. He saw a great deal more of it, he said, as a policeman than as a vicar.

'I can't really approve of making money out of this,' he said. 'But if I were in that position . . . well . . . who's to say I wouldn't be tempted?'

How was it possible that so many killings passed unnoticed for so long? 'I suppose it is surprising that nobody noticed the comings and the lack of goings,' Mr Eldridge said. 'But it's not a breakdown of the community. There never was a community on Cromwell Street.'

'They did know,' Chief Inspector Handy said. 'They knew that funny things went on. But none of them had the confidence in the police to tell them.'

Asked how the investigation did eventually begin, Chief Inspector Handy answers that it was good police work. A local policewoman, he says, picked up rumours. Other versions circulate: that it only began after a social worker raised the alarm.

Ask the neighbours why nobody noticed and they say that they always had their suspicions, but it was not a house you'd visit in the normal way. 'We used to hang about in the back yard,' said Shane O'Connor, 'just to annoy him. He used to shout at us.'

If Cromwell Street seems untroubled by the horror of No 25, Gloucester's great and good are concerned that the name of the city not be besmirched. On Wednesday afternoon, Gloucester's elderly mayor, Elsie Hedge, put in a bizarre appearance. 'I've come,' she snapped at reporters, 'to assure the police of my support.'

May I have your name? asked an American reporter. 'No,' retorted the mayor.

'It's obviously not a pleasant experience,' said the leader of the Labour group, Kevin Stephens, 'to have Gloucester put on the map for all the reasons going on now, and through that to overshadow the way the city is forging ahead. We support the police in their excellent work, we support the immediate community who have been traumatised by events in Cromwell Street and we shall continue our work in the promotion of Gloucester as a centre of tourism and commerce.'

'I really don't think people are traumatised,' said David Cole, the chairman of the Chamber of Trade and Commerce. 'People think of it more as a national than a local tragedy. But I think when people see the name Gloucester, the light bulb of recognition will go on and they will come to see what it's like. Then they will find out all the other things that Gloucester has to offer, like the Beatrix Potter shop and the cathedral.

'I don't think business will suffer,' he said. 'I think it's a bit sad that people are profiteering, with T-shirts and things. But it creates a platform for conversation when you are talking to a client, like a line of patter. I think in the end it will be a positive thing for tourism.'

In the tranquil surroundings of Bishop's Court, next to the cathedral, the Bishop of Gloucester had had a long day talking to women candidates for the priesthood. 'Life goes on,' he said. 'It is a horrific event. But I think people are robust about these things.'

As night fell, Chief Inspector Handy was doing the rounds again, for the evening news. In the wasteland behind the garden, newly pegged out areas marked the results of the radar scan of the night before. A policeman paused in his digging and grinned. 'Enjoying it?' he asked.

Was he traumatised by his work?

'Not really,' he said. 'It all seems a bit unreal.'