Former officer draws on experience after turning to crime fiction

Peter Ritchie, a fisherman before joining the police in his 20s, strives to make his fiction as authentic as possible. Picture: Contributed
Peter Ritchie, a fisherman before joining the police in his 20s, strives to make his fiction as authentic as possible. Picture: Contributed
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Iwas brought up in the tight-knit fishing community of Fisherrow in Musselburgh and worked as a deep-sea fishermen from the age of 15, sailing from Aberdeen and North Shields with my father, brother and other relations from the fishing tribes of East Lothian. It was a tough transition from boyhood to the hardships of life on the open decks summer and winter and I had to grow up very quickly.

Despite no formal education beyond school I read voraciously on the long trips to the fishing grounds in the North Sea and Atlantic waters round the west coast before we launched the fishing gear. After long hours on deck, books were a welcome escape and my route to self-education. Fishermen are born telling stories and the long journeys home were full of tall tales, which all fed into what was already a vivid imagination.

In my twenties I joined the police service moving swiftly through the ranks of CID, Serious Crime and then Regional Crime Squad. I was involved in some of the biggest investigations tackled by Lothian and Borders Police, including the murder of Caroline Hogg who was abducted by the serial killer Robert Black, and attacks on sex workers in the Leith area. These cases and later intelligence work on international trafficking of women really influenced my writing. Victims of the sex trade therefore appear in all my books. Seeing the way these women lived – some kids, some older women, many mothers – was heartbreaking. Debt, drugs and hopeless backgrounds shaped their lives but they still tried to hold their heads up and stumble through.

I went on to head the Organised Crime Unit in London coordinating teams from the national security intelligence services, customs, Home Office and Special Branch to break up international gangs involved in drugs, arms and people trafficking. Effectively, there were no borders in those operations – we worked with Italian counter mafia teams, the FBI, and specialist forces in Russia and Hong Kong. In the 90s I went to Europol in The Hague as UK Liaison Officer, coordinating more complex, cross-border organised crime and terrorism. Returning home, I headed the Major Crime Team in Lothian and Borders Police then took an advisory role for the Croatian Ministry of the Interior, worked on the inquiry into patient deaths at the Vale of Leven hospital and the murder of loyalist paramilitary Billy Wright in the Maze Prison. The Northern Ireland experience had a powerful effect. Like Croatia this small, close-knit community had the capacity to tear itself apart. The bitterness of the conflict and the way the state abandoned parts of Northern Ireland stayed with me, and the aftermath of the conflict has somehow found its way into almost every book in the Grace Macallan series.

Since childhood I always loved to draw and paint and wrote a lot of poetry but didn’t publish anything. Looking back I think I was waiting till the detective world was firmly behind me.

My first book idea was about a cop hit by a car, lying on the road thinking he was about to die. I wonder now if that was something to do with the approach of retirement and life without the job. This became the prologue for the first book. Then my imagination took over, the story picked up in Belfast’s Ormeau Road and the main character Grace, appeared out of nowhere. Half an hour earlier she didn’t exist and then, she was there, walking me through situations and stories as if she was real. It was like watching a stage play and just describing what I could see. Like all writers I get asked how I do it and of course everyone has their own way. I have no system and I wish I had a more interesting way of answering that question. Before I started writing, my own eyebrows raised when authors talked about characters being real. But Grace truly does seem like a friend I’ve known for years – and I’ve no idea why she is female. Maybe because women seem to have the ability to voice uncertainties that men must still deny.

Anyway, when I started writing, I realised being a crime writer in Scotland meant entering a large pool with very large fish so I wanted to make my own books as authentic as possible. Almost every incident comes from experience – sometimes horrifying, sometimes banal and usually darkly comic. Authenticity also means getting the dialogue right, so despite being a man who rarely swears I have had to create some blunt characters with crude ways of speaking. The opening scene in the first book involves a paramilitary operation in Belfast and dialogue between two terrorists. I got worried about the level of swearing and started editing it out. I mentioned this to my daughter who told me to put it all back in. So I’ve learned to live with characters in my head that sound nothing like me.

There are several characters who appear throughout in the books, but Grace is the central figure and I wanted to make her human – not the usual male, middle-aged, baggage-ridden, hard-drinking, rule-breaker whose wife or girlfriend invariably gets hurt, killed or otherwise estranged. The personal lives of fictional detectives never improve and lost, slightly washed-up characters, dominate the genre. Grace certainly has personal dramas but she recovers from them, has children, loses and gains friends and doubts herself all the time – like normal people mostly do. She has the same demons all detectives have – constant, graphic memories of violence (particularly inflicted on women and children) – and she’s basically driven out of Northern Ireland in the first book for giving evidence against a colleague, ending up in Edinburgh. In reality, it’s extremely hard to walk away from cases when the culprit is known but the team can’t find enough evidence to prove that. As a detective you can get really close to a conviction but still have to let a serious case go. That tests every cop, as TV series like the excellent and authentic Line of Duty and Unforgotten demonstrate. Grace is no super sleuth and makes mistakes, struggles with a confusing world but keeps her job because she needs it and her approach – understanding rather than judging people – works more often that it fails. Confusion is a constant in the world of a detective – in reality, no case exists in isolation and situations develop and collide with one another all the time.

Although there is a serial killer in the first book, I’ve tried not to repeat that scenario – there are enough fictional serial killers without me adding to the tally. I try to bring in the minor characters – the sex-workers and small-time criminals at the bottom of the ladder as well as the detectives and top tier criminals. And lastly there’s humour (mostly black) because that’s what keeps humanity going.

Evidence of Death: A Detective Grace Macallan Thriller by Peter Ritchie is published by Black & White Publishing and out now at £8.99.