As this is posted, it would have been Andy Griffith’s 91st birthday. In one of his more famous roles, he portrayed Atlanta attorney Benjamin ‘Ben’ Matlock. Matlock’s courtroom persona was the ‘I’m just a dumb hick lawyer’ type, and he used it to great advantage as he defended clients. If you’ve seen the show, though, you know that Matlock was much sharper than he seemed.
Griffith was well-known (at least in the US) for that sort of character, but he’s hardly the only fictional character to ‘play dumb.’ There are plenty of other fictional lawyers, for instance, who use the same strategy. There are other characters, too (right, fans of Peter Falk’s Lieutenant Columbo?).
For instance, more than once, Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple pretends to be ‘just a fluttery old lady.’ But any fan can tell you that Miss Marple is much more intelligent and observant than she seems on the surface. She uses that persona to put people off their guards, but they soon learn that they underestimate Miss Marple at their peril. There are times when Christie’s Hercule Poirot does a similar thing. Poirot is not exactly modest when it comes to his opinion of his detecting ability. But he also knows that it’s sometimes expedient to ‘play dumb,’ and he can do that quite well (I see you, fans of After the Funeral).
Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte is a bright, educated detective with the Queensland Police. He’s intelligent and shrewd, and a solid judge of character. But he knows that it doesn’t always serve his purpose to ‘show his hand’ as the saying goes. So, he sometimes adopts an ‘I’m just a dumb Aborigine – what do I know?’ persona (he’s half white/half Aborigine). He’s also been known to adopt the non-threatening persona of an itinerant stockman, a ranch hand, and more. This non-threatening exterior allows Bony to get people to talk to him in ways they might not otherwise do. And it gives him the chance to observe people when they’re not aware of it.
In Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me, we are introduced to Central City, Texas Deputy Sheriff Lou Ford. Most people in town think of him as a bit dull, perhaps not the brightest bulb in the proverbial chandelier. But he’s nice enough – certainly not threatening. Then, a local prostitute, Joyce Lakeland, is brutally beaten. Then, there’s a murder. As the story goes on, we learn that these events are connected, and that Ford’s ‘I’m just a dumb hick cop’ is hiding something else – something he himself refers to as ‘the sickness.’ It’s an interesting case of a murderer ‘playing dumb’ – and there are plenty of those.
Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Myrtle Clover may be retired (she’s a former teacher), but there’s nothing ‘over the hill’ about her thinking skills. She’s bright, shrewd, and observant. Still, she knows that it sometimes pays to be as non-threatening as possible. That’s especially true since she’s not a member of a police force, and since she lives in a small town, where everyone knows everyone. So, she sometimes deliberately cultivates the ‘I’m just a gossipy old lady with nothing better to do’ image. This tends to put people more at ease than they would be if they knew what she was actually thinking. And it gets her information that she might not otherwise get.
And then there’s Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce. As the series begins, she’s eleven years old. She gets around her 1950s English village on her bicycle, Gladys. She fights with her two older sisters, and in other ways, she acts like a typical child of her age (if there is such a thing). But Flavia is not typical. She’s a brilliant chemist with a passion for poisons. And she’s curious enough to want to find out the truth about the murders that feature in this series. So, she uses her youth to her advantage. More than once, she adopts the ‘I’m just a dumb kid, don’t mind me’ persona so that she can eavesdrop, find clues, and so on.
There are many more examples of fictional characters who ‘play dumb’ so that they can get an advantage. Sometimes, they’re sleuths. Sometimes they’re killers. Other times, they’re hiding other things. Creating such a character can be tricky. There has to be a plausible reason for which other characters can’t see how bright/shrewd/well-informed the character really is. Otherwise there’s too much suspension of disbelief required of the reader. And ‘playing dumb’ too often can become tiresome. But when it’s done well, that sort of persona can add depth to a character – and interest to a story. Which ones have stayed with you?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul Carrack’s How Long.