You can bend and twist the numbers any way you like, but there's no getting around this sobering truth: Philadelphia is the most murder-plagued big city in the country.

And, while our homicide rate continues to rise steadily, the nation's other big cities - New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston - are all seeing their murder numbers fall.

Perhaps the most troubling issue of all, some cops say, is that there is no end in sight, no single factor to pinpoint and blame for the City of Brotherly Love's ongoing violence epidemic.

The numbers speak volumes: As of yesterday, 60 people had been slain in this city of about 1.4 million people, compared to 49 at this same point last year.

Meanwhile, in New York - a city of 8 million - the homicide total has fallen 43 percent from last year, from 90 victims to 51, officials said.

Los Angeles, with a population of 4 million, has seen its murder tally drop from 68 a year ago at this time to 50, as of Sunday.

Chicago and Houston have also seen their homicides drop, albeit in slightly more muted fashion. Police officials in the Windy City said 41 people have been murdered this year, compared to 43 at this point last year.

Houston cops said their murder tally dropped in January - the only month for which they currently have statistics available - from 30 homicides last year to 26 this year.

And yet in Philadelphia, the bodies continue to pile up, at a rate of slightly more than one a day.

"The examination of the level of homicides in the city really needs to take place over the long haul," said police spokesman Capt. Benjamin Naish.

"We've experienced lulls where we've gone a week without a homicide, and then we've had periods where the homicides have spiked over a short period of time."

The year started off in horrific fashion with 25 homicides in the first 15 days, only to be followed by a brief but noticeable cease-fire.

"The Police Department is targeting patrols in areas where we have a history of violent crimes," Naish said.

"We're working with the communities, youth-violence programs, and plan expanding curfew-enforcement programs to other parts of the city.

"The success of those efforts will likely be felt down the road."

Meanwhile, homicide investigators have noticed a dramatic increase in indoor slayings - 32 so far this year, compared with 15 at this point last year.

The rise could be blamed on the recent cold weather, according to one criminal expert.

"Initially, the cold weather seemed to have a suppression effect [on homicides]," said Lawrence W. Sherman, director of the Jerry Lee Center of Criminology at the University of Pennsylvania.

"Nobody got shot because they were outside bumping into each other.

"But [the weather] also caused more interactions indoors," he said, "which may have been increasing stress among people crowded in small spaces."

The search for answers to the homicide rate is a fruitless effort in the eyes of some veteran homicide cops. "There's no one thing you can pinpoint," said one murder-weary cop who didn't want to be identified. "It's not just drugs. Our problems are across the board.

"I don't think any expert or politician can come to you and say, 'We're having problems because of "x, y and z." '

"We have to look at these other cities, look at New York, and see what they're doing and go from there." *