Serial killers excite imaginations fuelled by the box-office glory of Hannibal the Cannibal (played by Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs), and none more so than a killer with a gay connection. The latest murders offer full scope for the media myth of a 'twilight world of homosexuals', in which sad and lonely perverts shuffle from seedy gay bar to dangerous gay cruising ground, in search of a pick-up.
This view is of no help to either the Metropolitan Police or the gay community. And like it or not, these murders will prove a brutal testing ground for a fragile relationship between the two which has been three years in the making.
The (still unsolved) murder of the actor Michael Boothe in west London in 1990 brought to a head a simmering resentment over the treatment of anti-gay violence. While the Metropolitan Police boasts a murder clear-up rate of almost 90 per cent, this falls to nearer 50 per cent for murders of gay men.
Boothe's killing forced both sides to face some awkward truths. The police were used to dealing with gay men as sex criminals rather than as victims of hate crimes. Gay men and lesbians, deeply mistrustful of the police, would rarely co-operate with inquiries, preferring to keep silent rather than face a real or imagined persecution.
Today, the situation in London has changed dramatically, and some trust has been built up. Anti-gay violence is monitored in six Metropolitan regions, and it is not unusual to see officers distributing anti-violence fliers and chatting with gay men at community events. There is a gay and lesbian police officers' association, and anti-gay prejudice is outlawed in the ranks.
The force's Community Involvement Branch meets regularly with gay representatives. Only three weeks ago, the police commissioner Paul Condon met the group and expressed his concerns at anti- gay violence: 'I guess this is just the tip of the iceberg,' he said. 'We know there is massive under- reporting and we must show we mean business.'
But will that be possible? Having long been persecuted, gay men in London have built their own city- within-a-city. There are gay-only bars and pubs, newspapers, restaurants, shops and cruising grounds. Despite an easing of homophobia in the last few years, it is still a fairly closed community. And this all makes it harder to find the killer.
There is the possible added complication of sadomasochism. Since the recent jailing of gay men for consensual SM activities, participants are wary of volunteering information.
Most murderers are known to their victims. Most Londoners are tied to an area geographically. Yet gay men in the capital tend to be highly mobile and sexually active, often with strangers. This situation is not likely to change, and if the police and the gay community are to find the killer quickly, they must both show that they mean business.