James Melville was born Roy Peter Martin in London on January 5, 1931. Coming from a working-class background—his father, Walter, was a postal worker and his mother, Annie Mabel, a dressmaker—he was educated at Highbury Grammar School (1942-1948) and then at Birkbeck College, University of London, where he completed a bachelor’s degree in philosophy with honors in 1953. His university studies were interrupted by two years of service in the Royal Air Force Education Branch from 1950 to 1951. During the years before and after military service, he worked as a local government officer for the London County Council, and after university graduation, he was employed as a schoolteacher. In 1954 he returned to Birkbeck College, and he completed a master’s degree in political philosophy there two years later. After working as deputy publicity officer for the Royal Festival Hall (1956-1960) and doing additional graduate study (1958-1959) at the University of Türbigen in West Germany, he took a position in 1960 with the British Council, working in the area of cultural diplomacy. It was this work that would eventually take him to Japan, the setting for his famous Superintendent Otani mysteries.
After first being assigned in Indonesia for three years, Melville began the first of two tours in Japan as a cultural diplomat in 1963, when he was appointed director of the British Cultural Institute in Kyoto. He quickly fell in love with Japan. His first book, Japanese Cooking, written with his second wife, Joan Martin, was published in 1970. After leaving Japan in 1970, his next overseas assignment was with the British embassy in Budapest, where he served two years (1972-1973) as a cultural attaché. Although less influential in his later writing than the time spent in Japan, his Hungarian experience provided the background for two later spy/espionage novels, Diplomatic Baggage (1994) and The Reluctant Spy (1995).
After spending several years in London in the mid-1970’s, Melville returned to Japan in 1979, serving as a cultural counselor with the British embassy in Tokyo. In this same year, the first of the Superintendent Otani mysteries, The Wages of Zen, was published under the pen name James Melville, which the author later said combined the names of his sons, Adam Melville Martin and James Peter Martin. Melville wrote the book in London in the 1970’s, and it became the basis of a substantial series. Melville remained in Japan in his second diplomatic posting until 1983. After his return to England, he dedicated himself full-time to his literary career.
In addition to the Superintendent Otani mysteries and the other works mentioned, Melville is the author of two historical novels set in Japan, The Imperial Way (1986) and The Tarnished Phoenix (1990), and a nonfictional work, The Chrysanthemum Throne: A History of the Emperors of Japan (1997, under the name Peter Martin). Under the pseudonym Hampton Charles, he wrote three books in the Miss Seeton mystery series (originated by Heron Carvic): Miss Seeton, by Appointment (1990), Advantage, Miss Seeton (1990), and Miss Seeton at the Helm (1998).
Melville was married to Marjorie Peacock (1951-1960) and Joan Drumwright (1960-1977), with whom he had two sons, Adam and James, before marrying Catherine Sydee in 1978.