James Riordan learned to speak Russian during National Service training in the Royal Air Force in 1955—57. In 1960, he graduated in Russian Studies at the University of Birmingham, before qualifying as a teacher at the London Institute of Education.
In 1963, Riordan studied at the Communist higher party school in Moscow; he was an avowed Communist, and was one of the few English students at the school. The foreign community there included English defectors Kim Philby and Guy Burgess, formerly of the Cambridge Spy ring.
Riordan's first novel Sweet Clarinet won the NASEN Award, and was shortlisted for the Whitbread Children's Book Award. The Match of Death won the South Lanarkshire Book Award. The Gift was also shorted for the NASEN Award.