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 Kaurismaki) starring David Tennant, Vinessa Shaw, Julie Delpy, Vincent Gallo, and, in an uncreditedpart, 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.
Currently Rayner writes 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, Paivi Suvilehto, and the couple have two sons. He lives in Santa Monica.