May was born in Glasgow. From an early age was intent on becoming a novelist, but took up a career as a journalist as a way to start earning a living by writing. At the age of 21, he won the Fraser Award and was named Scotland's Young Journalist of the Year. He went on to write for The Scotsman and the Glasgow Evening Times. At the age of 26, May's first novel The Reporter, was published. May was asked to adapt the book as a television series for the British television network, the BBC and left journalism in 1978 to begin to write full-time for television.
May's novel, The Reporter became the prime-time 13-part television series entitled The Standard in 1978. May went on to create another major TV series for the BBC - Squadron - a drama involving a RAF rapid deployment squadron. In the following fifteen years, May earned more than 1000 TV credits. He created and wrote major drama serials for both BBC and the Independent Television Network in the UK including Machair which he co-created with Janice Hally for Scottish Television. The long-running serial was the first major television drama to be made in the Gaelic language and was shot entirely on the Isle of Lewis location in the Outer Hebrides. The show, which May also produced, achieved a 33% audience share and made it regularly into the top ten in the ratings in Scotland, in spite of the fact that it had to be broadcast with English subtitles as only 2% of the population are Gaelic speakers. During his time working in television, May wrote the novels Hidden Faces (1981) and The Noble Path (1992), and in 1996 May quit television to devote his time to writing novels.
Returning to novels, his "China Thrillers" series of books have been published around the world. To research the series, Peter May made annual trips to China and built up a network of contacts including forensic pathologists and homicide detectives. He gained access to the homicide and forensic science sections of Beijing and Shanghai police forces and has made a study of the methodology of Chinese police and forensic pathology systems.
As a mark of their respect for his work, The Chinese Crime Writers' Association made him an honorary member of their Beijing Chapter. He is the only Westerner to receive such an honour. He has also contributed a monthly column to the Chinese Police Magazine Contemporary World Police.
Peter May lives in France, and his China Thrillers have received several nominations for awards in that country. In 2007 he won the Prix Intramuros. This prize is unique in France as it is awarded by juries of readers made up of prisoners in French penitentieries. The books under consideration are reduced to a shortlist of 6 finalists and the authors of the shortlisted books then have to travel to various French prisons to be interviewed by panels of detainees. In 2007, May was the only non-French author in the shortlist. He received the prize at the annual Polar&Co literary festival in Cognac.
May's latest series, "The Enzo Files", is set in France and is centred on the work of half-Italian, half-Scottish Enzo Macleod. This former forensic scientist, now working as a biology professor at a French university becomes involved in applying the latest scientific methods to solve cold cases.
May continues to ensure authenticity in the details of his books by researching in France just as he did in China. When writing "The Critic" - which involves the wine industry and is set in Gaillac, France - May took a course in wine-tasting, picked grapes by hand, and was invited by the winemakers of the region to be inducted as a Chevalier de la Dive Bouteille de Gaillac in December 2007.
While working on his standalone thriller 'Virtually Dead', May researched the book by creating an avatar in the online world of Second Life and opening the Faulds private detective agency. He spent a year in Second Life, working as a private detective, and was hired by clients for cases ranging from protection from harassment by stalkers to surveillance and infidelity investigations. He claims to have had a 100% success rate.