Born in Durham in 1930, he was renowned for his extensive research and his ability to comment on the present with allegorical stories set in the past.
Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger, which dealt with the Atlantic slave trade of the 18th Century, shared the Booker with Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient.
As a result, the rules were changed to prevent a future split decision.
Unsworth’s first novel, The Partnership, was published in 1966.
His most recent book The Quality of Mercy was published last year and was a continuation of Sacred Hunger.
Pascali’s Island, his first historical novel, was shortlisted for the Booker in 1980 and was made into a film starring Ben Kingsley and Charles Dance eight years later.
His 1995 novel Morality Play also made the Booker shortlist.
That too was filmed, as The Reckoning, in 2003.
According to the New York Times, his US agent attributed his death in Perugia, Italy, to lung cancer.
“All my fiction starts from a feeling of unique perception, the pressure of a secret, a story that needs to be told,” the author once said.
“Whatever the ramifications, whatever turns the path takes, the beginning is always there, in a particular moment, a particular point of access.”