Speed Saunders held the lead feature in Detective Comics for much of it’s first three years. He begins as an investigator for the harbour police (also referred to as the river patrol). Though there would be little personal information given about Speed, we do learn that his first name is really Cyril. His stories were all self-contained, usually 6 page murder mysteries. Over time they developed a format in which Speed would explain the solution in the last panel or two, frequently citing evidence or information that the reader had not been privy to until that moment.
In his first case, dead bodies are found floating in the harbour, and the coroner intriguingly describes them as “real oriental chinamen”. Not fake oriental chinamen. Or real african chinamen. Speed investigates a boat that stays moored in the harbour without ever coming to port, and stumbles across a ring that smuggles these men into the US, tossing sick ones into the bay. Among the many reasons these men deserve to get caught, I would rank stupidity fairly high on the list.
Speed’s cases, while enjoyable enough, tend to be fairly straightforward murder investigations, and for the most part I am only going to discuss the tales in which we learn something about the character, or the story itself has something I find noteworthy. And now that I am moving past the slough of serials, that will be true for the bulk of my write-ups.
Speed almost gets fired in issue 4, after he deserts his job to fly to the island of San Jose, near Cuba, to investigate the death of an old friend. Notably, he flies the biplane himself.
Issue 5 sees an ape brought from Borneo escape from the zoo, and fall into the hands of an unnamed scientist who transfers the brain of an unidentified person into the ape’s body. Both ape and scientist perish at the end. This story is almost very good, but a great example of how not naming or given background to your characters leaves a decent story flat.
In issue 10, an otherwise run of the mill mystery, we see that Speed lives in a house with his mother.
Issue 11 has a very good tale. The (apparently entire) US fleet is in New York City’s harbour for a festival, and Germans plot to blow up a submarine at the harbour’s entrance to trap the fleet. Speed spots the sub from the air, and sky dives in a bulky old divers suit to reach it. He defeats the Germans, who curiously are identified as anarchists, not nazis.
He has an adventure in Texas in issue 12, aiding natives against an oil company illegally tapping their pipeline. Far from the coast, this story is explained by having Speed drive across the country after helping out in a case in Calfornia, and stumbling across it, but it really sort of marks the end of his harbour police days. In the following story he pursues a fugitive in the city, and no mention is made of the harbour police at all. We do meet an unnamed blond nephew of Speed in that one, though.
With issue 14 Speed has become a private investigator, and accompanies Doris Dane and her nephew Dick to Hondoku Island, searching for her missing brother Malcolm. The story has a sequel in the following issue, as the Danes and Speed sail back to America, and Doris’s pearls get stolen. The end of the story states that there is more to come with the pearls, and it feels like the series is about to become a serial, but instead a new artist comes on board and the series changes direction slightly, as Speed comes back to the police force, now as a detective on the murder squad.
As well, from issues 16 – 22 Speed wears a remarkably hideous green plaid suit on his cases. He is now shown living in an apartment on his own, so we can presume he has finally moved out of home and started buying his own clothes for the first time in his life, and just has no sartorial taste.
There is a decent murder tale in issue 21, with a poisoned author, Philippa Rowan. Speed determines that she was not killed by the poisoned drink in the table in front of her, but rather by prussic acid in her cigarette.
They story in issue 27 is laughably easy for Speed to solve. He gets caught up in a series of murders by the Kurdish Red Crescent killers, and it doesn’t take a genius to realize that the mysterious woman wearing red crescent earrings, a red crescent necklace, and carrying a handkerchief with a red crescent monogram is probably behind it.
More unintentional humour is found in issue 30, when an antiques collector is found dead with a crossbow bolt in his forehead. The drawing of the man sitting in his chair with a big bolt sticking out of his head just looks far too goofy.
Speed gets a real villain, of sorts, in issue 32. Skull Face wears a cloak and a skull mask, and poisons bathing beauties after forcing them to give their money to charity. Why exactly he wants to do this in not clear.
Speed heads to Canada in issue 33, helping the mounties catch a man who murders fur trappers and steals their pelts. Trees, rock, moose, canoes, mounties, this hits almost all the Canadian stereotypes, though no one speaks french.
Issue 34, the last story of this era, has the army request Speed’s help after sabotage to their weapons. We learn in this tale that Speed was “one of the best pilots in France,” which would seem to imply that he is old enough to have fought in World War I.
Speed Saunders continues in the Early Golden Age
Speed Saunders: Detective Comics 1 (Mar 37), 3 – 34 (May 37 – Dec 39)