He was born on December 15, 1955 in the northern city of Bradford. Rayner attended schools in Yorkshire and Wales before studying philosophy and law at the University of Cambridge. He has worked as an editor at Time Out Magazine, in London, and later on the literary magazine Granta, then based in Cambridge.
Rayner is the author of nine books. His first, Los Angeles Without A Map, was published in 1988. Part-fiction, part-travelogue, this was turned into a movie L.A. Without a Map (for which Rayner co-wrote the screenplay with director Mika Kaurismäki) starring David Tennant, Vinessa Shaw, Julie Delpy, Vincent Gallo, and, in an uncredited part, Johnny Depp.
In 1996, Rayner published The Blue Suit, a memoir about his early life that won an Esquire Non-Fiction Award in the UK, and was described as 'a beguiling portrait of the artist as a writer and a crook' by the New York Times. Novels like The Cloud Sketcher and Devil's Wind followed. Murder Book, another novel, grew out of a time that Rayner spent riding with the Los Angeles Police Department. Most recently, in 2009, Rayner has published A Bright And Guilty Place, a non-fiction historical narrative set in Los Angeles in the late 1920s and early 1930s, featuring various true-life tabloid crimes of the era.
Rayner is a prolific journalist and short-story writer. He has published in The New Yorker, The Los Angeles Times, Esquire, The Times, The Guardian, The Observer and Granta Magazine among others. He wrote about the Los Angeles Riots for Granta Magazine, and about the post-Rodney-King Los Angeles Police Department for the New York Times Magazine. His non-fiction work for the New Yorker has included a profile of Robert Redford, and a story about how a Finnish entomologist helped put leaves back on pest-ravaged Beijing trees in time for the 2008 Olympics. Rayner wrote and presented 'Back to Bradford', a documentary for UK Channel 4 about returning to his hometow.
Rayner has written a monthly column entitled Paperback Writers for the Los Angeles Times. His work has been translated into many languages. He is married to a Finn, Päivi Suvilehto, and the couple have two sons. He lives in Santa Monica.
Rayner is the writer and co-creator, with Don Handfield, and executive producer, of the historical drama Knightfall, concerning the downfall and legend of the Knights Templar, which airs in the USA on the History channel, starting late 2017. The show stars Tom Cullen, Jim Carter, and Julian Ovenden, and was shot in Prague in 2016.
- Los Angeles Without A Map (1988 - adapted for film in 1998)
- The Elephant (1991)
- Murder Book (1998)
- The Cloud Sketcher (2001)
- The Devil's Wind (2005)
- The Blue Suit (1995), Review: "Portrait Of The Artist As A Writer And A Crook" by Michuko Kakutani, New York Times, October 27, 1995
- Drake's Fortune (2002) about the con artist Oscar Hartzell
- The Associates: Four Capitalists Who Created California (2008) features profiles of Collis Huntington, Charles Crocker, Mark Hopkins and Leland Stanford
- A Bright And Guilty Place (2009) about the murderer of Los Angeles underworld figure Charles H. Crawford
Articles and short stories
- "Los Angeles" in The Best Of Granta Reportage, Granta Books, London (1993)
- "LAPC", New York Times Magazine, January 22, 1995
- "Existential Cowboy", New Yorker, May 18, 1998
- "Bug Wars", New Yorker, August 25, 2008
- "Channelling Ike", New Yorker, April 26, 2010 (revisits Stephen E. Ambrose plagiarism controversy)