The residents of this sprawling, sophisticated city, where mysterious murders and rapes are common, are not reaching in what passes here for a conventional manner to the unsolved killings of the Hillside stranger.

The usual pattern in this vast and impersonal city is for the reaction to be confined to the neighborhood of the crimes. But three weeks after the nude body of Kimberly (Candy) Diane Martin, 17, was found sprawled on a hillside south of Suburban Glendale, police switchboards still are flooded with calls, some of them near-hysterical, about suspicious persons the callers think might be the killer. Martin was the 11th victim in a series of psychopathic murders which began last October.

"In 27 years on the force, 13 of them on this job, I've never seen such a reaction of fear," says Lt. Dan Cooke, spokesman for the Los Angeles Police Department.

The objective measurements of this fear, such as the buying of weapons and enrollment in self-defense classes, support this assessment. So do the attitudes of many Los Angeles women.

A pretty, middle-aged woman who used to joke that she would tell the strangler if he came for her that she was the wrong age suddenly has taken to locking her home and car. She lives in Santa Monica, as far away from the suburban Glendale area where the strangler's victims have been found as Fairfax is from downtown Washington.

In Glendale a young businesswoman relates how she visited friends in Anaheim, some 50 miles away, last weekend and observed a man staring at her in a neighborhood store.

"All at once I was afraid the way I've been afraid since these stranglings started," she said. "I never used to be afraid before."

Seven of the 11 victims of the Hillside strangler have been identified as prostitutes, and the bodies of nine of the victims were found in the same Glendale area. Yet the fear reaction appears to be citywide and to affect all classes of women.

The Glendale businesswoman said she believes the strangler has penetrated the mask of impersonality worn by many people in Los Angeles, "and reminded us that we're all victims." Police say that the strong public response is because the victims are young women, whom parents identify with their daughters.

There also are those who believe that the strangler has exerted a particular fascination here because he has tended to show up a highly respected police force as inept and bumbling.

Los Angeles residents, perhaps because they have so little contact with other government officials, tend to take their police force seriously. A poll published last month by the Los Angeles Times found that nearly 70 per cent of the city's residents approved of the job the police are doing.

But public confidence in the police handling of the strangler slayings has been undermined. In the case of one victim, not a prostitute, police refused to take a missing person's report until the father of the girl in desperation made up a story that he had seen her abducted. When the girl's body subsequently was found, police changed their procedures for the duration of the strangler investigation to take missing person reports immediately.

The most serious accusation of police bungling comes from Lois Lee, 27, a sociologist who founded the California Association for Trollops (CAT), which furnished a hot line for hookers and acts as a go-between prostitutes and the police.

Acting on a tip from a prostitute, Lee telephoned the police the night of Dec. 13 to tell them that 17-year-old Candy Martin had been lured to a Glendale apartment by a caller suspected of being the strangler. Police never sent a car to the rendezvous apartment and would not take a report from Lee until 3 1/2 hours after the incident.

Lee was on the phone the next day, trying to make a missing person report, when she was told that Martin's body had been found on the hillside.

Three weeks later police will say only that this incident is "under investigation." City Councilman David Cunningham has written two letters about it to the Police Commission without acknowledgment or reply.

Street people in Hollywood-Glendale attribute the slow-paced police response in the Martin killing to a lack of concern about what happens to prostitutes. Cunningham says, "This is a frightening attitude, if true, because it's almost like saying to a rapist that these women are fair game."

Such charges infuriate the police, who say that the 65-person strangler task force has investigated 3,500 leads in the case. Cooke says that in one instance police spent several hours trying to find the whereabouts of a prostitute who stayed home because her car wouldn't start.

"The whole thing is ridiculous," Cooke says. "We have to babysit prostitutes now. They expect us to go out and find them."

Actually, the prostitutes expect the police to find the strangler - or stranglers. The prevalent view in Hollywood is that the crimes were committed by different persons in a "copycat" fashion, and police have become open to the idea. Last Thursday the strangler task force released composite photos of two men who led the strangler's ninth victim from her own car to another vehicle Nov. 28.

Police are particularly sensitive to a belief widely held among prostitutes that the strangler is a policemen or someone who poses as a police officer. This notion was denounced angrily by the police when it was first suggested, but Assistant Police Chief Daryl Gates subsequently acknowledged that the killer has a good knowledge of police operating methods.

Speculation that the strangler might be posing as a police officer has been heightened by the fact that none of the victims appeared to have struggled with her assailant, indicating that they either knew him or went with someone they trusted.

Fear that the strangler is a pseudo-cop is now so great that the department has instructed its officers to allow women drivers who are stopped for questioning to proceed to a well-lighted public place before getting out of their cars.

Nevertheless, the fear and the suspicions persist, and it likely to continue unless or until the strangler is caught.

As a veteran police officer put it last week at the end of a long day: "There are at least 12 victims of this nut. Eleven of them are the girls he strangled. The 12th is the LAPD itself."