An Amanda Arkebauer Production

July/August 2006 Whispered Watchword

Susan Altman is a Super Sleuth Sidekick!

Penny Nichols Cover

What qualities make for a good sidekick? I believe that there are several key points that every sidekick should embody. First, the sidekick should be a foil for the hero or heroine. They should be more timid because the hero is the fearless one. The heroine is always sharper and just a little bit smarter than the sidekick is, and the sidekick is often the voice of Reason when the heroine becomes too impetuous. They are a sounding board for the heroine. The sidekick also helps move along the action in the story by becoming involved in the mystery. And finally, like the reader, the sidekick often leads a humble and humdrum existence that is enlivened by contact with the heroine.

In the Penny Nichols series by Mildred Wirt (writing as Joan Clark), Susan Altman displays all the qualities of a super sidekick. Penny is very much like Nancy Drew. Her father raises her. They have a housekeeper, Mrs. Gallup, who hovers motherly like Hannah Gruen. Penny's father owns a private detective agency. Penny becomes involved in mysteries and she pulls her friend Susan Altman in along with her!

Susan is a perfect foil for Penny Nichols. She is plump and dark-haired where Penny is slender, blonde and blue-eyed. Penny is described, as being too athletic and active to ever be plump. Susan is more the couch potato type. In the Knob Hill Mystery, she comments," It seems as if I've walked a million miles today," Susan grumbled good-naturedly. "It's good for your figure," Penny laughed, "You don't want to get fat." "No chance of it around you." Susan retorted.

Susan is definitely more timid than Penny. In Penny Nichols Finds a Clue, Susan is worried about possible danger ahead. "Won't it be dangerous?" Susan demurred. Penny replies, "The place seems to be deserted, but probably it would be wiser if you waited here and I went in alone." "No, if you're going to risk it, so am I" Susan replies. Also in Finds a Clue, "at first Susan hung back but when she found that Penny was determined to investigate the garage alone, she reluctantly followed her chum down the path." In the Knob Hill Mystery, Susan says," If you're brave enough to go, I suppose I'll tag along."

Our heroine is always a little sharper than the sidekick. In Penny Nichols and the Black Imp, Penny offers a detailed description of a suspect. "Susan was amazed at her chum's accurate description of the attendant, for she could not have recalled any of his features." In the Knob Hill Mystery, Penny notices a pivotal clue at a local dry goods store. Susan comments, "I'd never have noticed a thing like that in a million years," Susan murmured in awe. "Penny, you've uncovered an important clue in your father's case!" On another page, Susan says, "You know I want to help, But I'm an awful dub. I never have any ideas."

A great sidekick is often the voice of Reason. When the heroine is getting too impetuous, the sidekick will try to bring them back down to earth. Susan comments from Penny Nichols Finds a Clue; "You must have lost your senses, Penny Nichols! If you turn up missing some morning it will be easy to guess the reason why. You should leave the job (of shadowing the thieves) to them! (Her father's agency)."

Susan provides a sounding board for Penny. Penny can talk to Susan about her hunches and instincts without fear of not being taken seriously. The sidekick supports the sleuth's detecting. And the sidekick is more knowledgeable about the regular day to day business of being a girl so the heroine can continue her tomboyish detective ways. In the Mystery of the Lost Key, Penny says, "In matters of dress she valued Susan's opinion more highly than her own." From Penny Nichols Finds a Clue, there is this passage: "There were occasions when the two friends talked frantically for hours. There were other times when they would speak scarcely a word, yet enjoy perfect understanding."

Often a sidekick will help to move the action along by becoming involved in the mystery. In Penny Nichols Finds a Clue, the mystery is about a ring of car thieves. Susan becomes involved when she unknowingly buys a stolen car part for her car. And of course, she comes to Penny to help her with this problem.

Like the reader, the sidekick leads a more humble and humdrum existence and her life is enlivened by contact with the heroine. Susan Altman becomes involved in adventure through Penny Nichols, just as the reader becomes involved vicariously. Susan envies Penny's exciting life. In Penny Nichols Finds a Clue, Susan thinks, "It seemed to her that Penny always led an unhampered adventurous existence. At any rate, the girl was well acquainted with interesting happenings a the Belton City police court and had more than a nodding acquaintance with fascinating personages of the city." I believe that a super sidekick is someone that the reader can identify with. We would all like to be as beautiful and brave as Penny Nichols is, but usually we are more like Susan Altman.