BARRY PEROWNE “Raffles and the Death Rocket.” Popular Detective, March 1936. First published in The Thriller, UK, #249, 11 November 1933.

   Barry Perowne, nephew of Bertram Atkey, the creator of gentleman adventurer Smiler Bunn, began penning a series of short stories about E. W. Hornung’s famed amateur cracksman Raffles in the early 1930s. These stories appeared first in the British pulp Thriller, and later in hardcover and American pulps like this March 1936 issue of Popular Detective. In these tales Bunny Manders and A. J. Raffles pursued crime and justice much in the same manner as the Saint or Norman Conquest.

   As this one opens Bunny and Raffles have been summoned to a strange house in Mayfair where they are to observe an “experiment in the conquest of space” on of all nights November the 5th, Guy Fawkes night:

   Piccadilly Circus, with its roar and rumble of traffic, its glaring, winking, pulsating sky-signs, though a bare ten minutes away, seemed strangely remote from this singular house in this gloomy, aristocratic street.

   Muffled detonations came from the back streets, vivid flashes in the sky. November the fifth — night of fire works. Night of masks and shooting stars, but a night for the grotesque, the mysterious, the dramatic. A night through which ran a cruel, bright, eager motif — Flame!

   With a sense of adventure my friend, A. J. Raffles, cricketer, gentleman, and crook, and I, Bunny Manders, his partner in crime, passed beneath the arch and into the shadowy courtyard.

   Never let it be said Perowne hadn’t inherited a fine eye and ear for mystery and atmosphere. He was the author of many fine tales of suspense and adventure of his own aside from briefly continuing the adventures of cracksman Smiler Bunn and more extensively those of Raffles. Here we are in the popular gentleman adventurer mode of the between-the-Wars years, and Perowne handles the style with aplomb.

   Professor Louis Mendawe is to make the great experiment with a carefully chosen array of guests, but as Raffles and Bunny arrive at the costume ball to accompany the experiment they find only their hostess, the strikingly beautiful Lady Carla Mendawe and the other guests, including Grant Cardinal KC, who Bunny opines is much too familiar with the police in the form of their nemesis Inspector Duke Roth of the Yard, and a distinguished group of guests and the small fortune in jewels accompanying them, making Bunny more than a little nervous, especially when Raffles follows his restless nose to prowl around and they spy a silver haired girl in a crimson mask and follow her to a roof top observatory when …

   And that second, with a queer, muttering catch of his breath, Raffles hurled himself forward. I heard her low cry as they struggled. Then, sharp and clear through the humming of the machinery, the crack of an automatic, a crimson spurt of flame, brought me lunging to my feet!

   And we’re off, the suicidal young lady Lady Menshawe’s social secretary, Lesley Lorne, engaged to Lord Menshawe’s assistant Piers Armour, who was guarding the lab and saw the struggle. He claims to be as puzzled as Raffles, but reveals his employer has been nervous about this strange night.

   Then in short order Raffles and Bunny intercept a mysterious threatening phone message for Lady Menshawe , who insisted the experiment coincide with Guy Fawkes Night, and a prowler with a silenced weapon shoots at them while the rest of the guest are watching fireworks in the garden.

   What follows, all in the course of one incredible night involves a rival jewel thief, known as The Marquis, a crime of passion, one madman, the most incredible plot for disposing of a body I have ever encountered, a rocket launched to the moon (from the middle of Mayfair at that), and of course a victory, and profit, for Raffles sparing the lovers, young and older, embarrassing Inspector Roth, and some damn imaginative if hardly fair play detective work on Raffles’ part.

   No, it isn’t great literature, but is is great fun, this one as much in the American and the British thriller tradition, and it makes me wish I had read more of the earlier round of Perowne Raffles stories. This one is beautifully crafted and moves at a rapid pace, managing, just mind you, to cross all the t’s and dot all the i’s before the highly satisfying final image.

   â€œRemember I dropped my cigarette case when we were interviewing the Marquis? His wall-safe, Bunny, was wide open and close at hand.”

   I sat up abruptly. His lighter clicked. In the small flame I saw resting on his palm something that flashed and flickered with the cold light of diamonds.

   The Khaipore pendant!

   â€œA penny for the guy,” said Raffles as blithely as had the Guy Fawkes night urchins used the phrase in Piccadilly Circus. Dropping the pendant into the pocket of his white waistcoat, he tilted his silk hat over his eyes and composed himself for sleep.

   Salaam, Raffles!

   Salaam indeed.