John Straley was born in Redwood City, California. He grew up in the Seattle area and attended high school in New York City. Straley trained, with encouragement from his parents, to be a horseshoer. He attended Grinnell College before transferring to the University of Washington for a degree in writing. After college and a stint in Eastern Washington, he followed his wife to Sitka, Alaska in 1977. After moving through a number of jobs he became a private investigator and a staff investigator for the Alaska Public Defender. As an investigator, he continued to write. After being turned down by publishers numerous times, in 1991 he received a tip from friend and anthropologist Richard Nelson that New York City-based Soho Press was interested in detective fiction novels. Upon submitting his manuscript for The Woman Who Married a Bear, Soho Press expressed interest in his work. After a successful run of mysteries that has garnered critical acclaim, he is now looking outside of his trademark Cecil Younger series for future books.
During his presidency, Bill Clinton visited a bookstore and bought The Woman Who Married a Bear.
In 2006, he was named writer laureate for the State of Alaska; he served in that position until 2008.
In 2008, Alaska Northwest Books published Straley's The Big Both Ways, a historical fiction work based in the Pacific Northwest.