Writer went from cod to cop to inspire novels
Published: 03 Nov 2015
Going back several generations, Peter Ritchie’s fishing forefathers hailed from the north-east of Scotland and through time, migrated south to East Lothian’s fishing hubs.
However, throughout Peter’s working life, a connection with Scotland’s north-east has been maintained, with catches of fish through to criminals.
Peter has had an extraordinary career, spanning from deep-sea fishing to senior-ranking posts in the police and now author.
As his fourth novel, Where No Shadows Fall, hits the shelves, we take a look at his career so far.
AT THE AGE OF 15 YOU BECAME A DEEP-SEA FISHERMAN. WHAT WAS YOUR CAREER ASPIRATIONS THEN?
Well, you had none back then. Both sides of my family have generations of fishermen as far back as I can trace and that was always what I was
going to be.
Even in my school holidays I would go out in my dad’s boat when he was home. It never really crossed my mind about doing something else. It was a foregone conclusion really.
BACK THEN WAS THERE ANY INTEREST IN WRITING OR READING?
I was a great reader even as a child. I was quite introverted and I loved books. The first books I read were Call of the Wild and Coral Island. These books were about other places and that was when you realised there is this whole other world outside your own community.
I loved to read. At school, English was always my best subject, particularly writing stories, and I’ve always painted and drawn as well. I think the interest was there from an early age.
BUT THE IDEA OF IT BEING A CAREER, THAT WASN’T THERE?
Absolutely not. The thought of being a writer, no that never crossed my mind until a bit later in life.
A DECADE LATER, YOU DID LEAVE THE FISHING COMMUNITY AND JOIN THE POLICE FORCE AND MOVED THROUGH THE RANKS TO LEADING A SURVEILLANCE UNIT IN THE SCOTTISH CRIME SQUAD. HOW DID THAT CAREER CHANGE COME ABOUT?
Well, I had gone to Leith Nautical College and taken my tickets because I wanted to be a skipper. What happened was a guy who was much older than me who was a great fisherman, we had decided to get a boat together and it fell through at the last minute.
It made me stop and think. Although the industry as a whole was making a lot of money at the time, you could see problems on the horizon and it was quite weird.
One of the days I was walking past a police station in Edinburgh and I just walked in. It was quite strange because I had about 14 pound of hair, Noddy Holder sideburns, a crombie coat, boots and a fag hanging out my mouth – I think they were a bit confused about whether they should arrest me or what to do.
It was literally as quick as that. It was just one of those things of “I’m going to try something else”.
WERE YOU ABLE TO USE ANY SKILLS FROM YOUR TIME
AS A FISHERMAN IN YOUR POLICE DAYS?
What the fishing life gave me was a real work ethic. I couldn’t understand why guys were tired doing a nightshift. I had been working every hour God sends on the open seas so I worked really hard and pulled myself away from the bottom half right into the top 10.
And that was just a good work ethic rather than being a latent genius. That always stood me in good stead. Those roots stayed with me. I left school with no qualifications and I don’t think anyone should let that put them off.
YOU WERE LATER APPOINTED AS THE UK LIAISON OFFICER TO EUROPOL IN THE HAGUE, NETHERLANDS. WHAT WAS THAT LIKE?
It was a great job and I had to think really hard about leaving. It was a great place to work and live. I must admit when I got there I realised I had come a long way from being on the beat in Musselburgh. It was a really good life.
DURING YOUR POLICE CAREER, DID YOU DO ANY WRITING?
I did have an ambition to write. I did a lot of poetry and painting but there wasn’t really the time. Years and years ago I started attempts at books, but one of the problems that I know now about writing is you can leave big gaps and come back to them so I have a couple of stories that I am going to pick up again that I started 20 years ago.
I semi-retired so I could have this go at writing. I’m glad it’s come to this point. The benefit of looking back a bit really helps me in writing. It’s become a full-time job, I’ve given up everything else that I do and I just love doing this. It’s been one of the best things I’ve ever done, I love it.
WAS THERE ANY ONE PARTICULAR THING THAT MADE YOU THINK NOW IS THE TIME TO DO IT?
It seems a bit of a mountain to climb like many things when you think
how do you write a book?
Even though I am great reader, you sit there and think about what the first line should be and it suddenly seems like a giant mountain in front of you.
Once you’ve done a couple, you realise it’s just a case of sitting down and doing it, you will get there. It’s a mind thing.
I always say to people if you have got a desire to do something don’t just talk about it for the rest of your life, just go and do it. I really am a great believer in better to try and fail, have a go, don’t get to the end and think I wish I’d tried that.
IN YOUR FIRST THREE NOVELS, YOUR LEAD CHARACTER WAS GRACE DEN HERDER, A FORMER LAWYER FROM THE NETHERLANDS WHO BECOMES A HARD-NOSED DETECTIVE. DID YOU DELIBERATELY CHOOSE A FEMALE LEAD?
No. It just kind of happened. I never have any plan when I sit down. Originally the central character was going to be this guy called John O’Connor and then within a few sentences this Grace character came into my head and she just took over.
AND I’M GUESSING THEN THERE WAS NO PLAN TO MAKE
IT A TRILOGY?
No, it was going to be one book, but I enjoyed it so much I thought there is a couple other stories in there.
It’s funny I can look at the books now and the first book, that’s the shortest one, it’s an introduction, you learn so much by doing it, it’s strange when you start. I’ve read 1,000 books but what do you do with dialogue?
But by the second and third book you become really confident and you pick up your own style.
IS GRACE BASED ON YOU AT ALL?
It’s really funny, I get a few good debates in bars with people I know. Everybody thinks they know who the characters are based on and everybody thinks it’s someone different.
One of my closest friends, he’s convinced Grace is me.
They are all wrong, but you do have to draw on what you’ve seen in life. There’s no character that you could say is based on a specific person.
HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT YOUR CAREER OVERALL?
I’ve loved it all. I look back and think I’ve dealt with an awful lot of tough things in my life. I just think I’ve been really lucky to have done what I have done and I wouldn’t change it at all.
I think the fishing life was wonderful, it’s still in me and a real cornerstone in my life. The police career gave me opportunities that I could never have dreamed of when I was a young fisherman.
I travelled all over the world, met amazing people, saw amazing things and did a lot of stuff I’m proud of. There were failures, too, but that’s part of it, you learn from that.