Didn't anyone wonder about the digging?

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UNTIL last week, Gloucester was a place I had been driven through as a child, or by-passed as an adult, without ever actually stopping.

I was brought up in Bristol, close to the Gloucester Road, once the main road north. The city had been a place of strategic significance before the Severn Bridge was built and you crossed that great tidal river to enter Wales. Only two months ago I drove towards Gloucester from Ross-on-Wye and was suddenly entranced by the beauty of its great medieval cathedral, which rises above the otherwise flat, grey city. Gloucester seems to be a city that the motorway age has left behind and Cheltenham has overshadowed.

Now, to its evident astonishment and shame, it is becoming a by-word for something quite terrible. Gloucester has unwittingly provided the backdrop for the discovery of bodies missing for many, many years. It has become almost a metaphor for the shiftlessness of modern life: that so many people can go missing without trace, and no one press for an explanation. This is perhaps one of the worst aspects of the case.

I can quite understand why local people and outsiders are visiting 25 Cromwell Street and staring long and hard. For it is a peculiar and macabre investigation, with very British overtones.

Is it not an incredible comment on modern life that nine people, and possibly more, can be killed over a period of 20 years without anyone raising the alarm? This is surely something that requires an independent inquiry.

All right, so people move around more than they used to; more of us move farther from our roots. The days of the extended family, in which grandparents and great-aunts, first and second cousins all knew each other and worried when one went missing may be over. But if I were a parent of one of the victims, I would certainly be demanding that someone trawl through police files and social services reports to see whether crucial clues were never pieced together.

Does it not seem very strange to witness a daily and steadily rising body count? There is a horrible fascination in speculating about how high it will rise and when it will stop. But at the same time - and I'm sure I'm not alone here - the horror seems worse because it is so unfocused. The victims whose remains are being dug up seem sketchy and depersonalised, rather than clearly identifiable women, snatched from life.

The investigation also seems to be back-to-front. It does not conform to the rules of the detective stories we are accustomed to. Most such cases begin with bodies and are victim-centred at the start. This case is different. The tension is in the hunt for bodies.

The very British overtones to this case derive from the main scene of the killings, the family house itself. This is a badly converted, inner-city Victorian house with ugly replacement windows and carriage lamps.

Some of the graves have been covered by an apparent - and oh so acceptable - frenzy of do-it-yourself building work, concrete floors to converted cellar bedrooms, a newly installed bathroom in a gerry-built extension.

The main mystery centres on how the killings were sustained for so long without anyone going to the police or suspecting the worst. The house abuts a busy street. Every night on television we can see that there are neighbours. The small garden backs on to an art school. There is a church next door. Could you do so much digging and concreting in your back garden without anybody noticing? It seems that you can. People are digging and doing home improvements all the time.

For another, and terrible, aspect of this serial killing is that 25 Cromwell Street appears to have been filled with people, family and tenants. It conjures up a bleak and terrible vision of a deranged household. As yet, though, there is little sense of either motivation or reason for what has occurred.

It is surely not good enough to explain all the harrowing details of this case away by saying that the people whose remains are now being dug up were just victims of the modern world. And that what happened - whatever it was - is the sort of thing that happens in a drifting, bedsit twilight sort of world.

Gloucester surely needs to examine how it became host to such unrestrained evil.