William John Burley was born in Falmouth, Cornwall, England, on August 1, 1914, the sixth child and first son in his family. His parents—William John Rule Burley and Annie Curnow Burley—were both natives of the West Country, and Burley’s Cornish roots are at least five generations deep.
Trained as an engineer at Truro Central Technical Schools (1926-1930) and on scholarship at the Institution of Gas Engineers (1931), Burley rose to become manager of various gas undertakings in the southwest of England (including Truro Gas Company, 1938; Okehampton Gas Company, 1940; Crewkerne Gas and Coke Company, 1944; and Camborne Gas Company, 1946). Burley married school secretary Muriel Wolsey in 1938, and the couple produced two sons, Alan John and Nigel Philip. Because Burley was in an occupation judged vital to the United Kingdom during World War II, he was not inducted into the military but instead served as a sergeant in the Home Guard.
Burley in 1946 began attending natural history classes and became fascinated with local insect life. In 1950 he abandoned his career in energy—and lost his pension—to study zoology on a state scholarship at Balliol College, Oxford. After he graduated with an honors degree in zoology in 1953, Burley went into teaching. He was head of the biology department at Richmond and East Sheen Country Grammar School for boys (1953-1955) before he became the head of the biology department and sixth-form tutor at Newquay Grammar School in Cornwall. Burley settled in Newquay with his wife and two children and remained at the school until his formal retirement.
Burley wrote his first novel, A Taste of Power, set in a school and featuring amateur detective Henry Pym, in 1966 and followed it with Three-Toed Pussy (1968), which introduced his best-known character, Superintendent Charles Wycliffe. After one more Pym novel, Death in Willow Pattern (1969), Burley returned to the Wycliffe series with To Kill a Cat (1970) and, except for occasional excursions outside the series, concentrated primarily on Wycliffe for the rest of his career.
Burley retired from teaching in 1974 to devote himself full time to writing. His background in the biological sciences and his interest in organic and social evolution show themselves in his various novels, especially in a nonseries work, The Sixth Day
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