‘Cause I Ain’t Quite as Dumb as I Seem*

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. 


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alan Bradley, Arthur Upfield, Elzabeth Spann Craig, Jim Thompson

23 responses to “‘Cause I Ain’t Quite as Dumb as I Seem*

  1. Anne Hagan

    Some great examples! I like Jane Lawless in Ellen Hart’s series of books that feature her. Most people think of her as a chef. Her friends know she has a knack for solving crime but the culprits don’t have a clue.

    • Thanks, Anne. And thanks for the suggestion of Ellen Hart’s novels. Jane Lawless is a good example of the sort of character I had in mind with this post. I appreciate your filling in the gap.

  2. Great examples here Margot – funnily enough I was telling my assistant in our job (which has legal aspects) sometimes it is better to know things but not let on to find out more although you have to be knowledgeable enough to remain credible!

    • Thanks, Cleo. Interesting, isn’t it, that you were just discussing this sort of thing with your assistant. You’re absolutely right that there has to be a balance. Not letting on that you know something can have its benefits. But pretending to be completely ignorant can definitely backfire!

  3. Margot, when I read the title of your blog post, the one character that struck my mind was Gerda Christow from Agatha Christie’s The Hollow, whom everyone thought was stupid and slow, but in the end, she admits “I’m not quite so stupid as everyone thinks.” Don’t underestimate people based on appearances alone!

    • Oh, good example, Sbrneseay1! Gerda Christow is, indeed, not nearly as stupid as everything thinks that she is, and on that score, I think Christie did her character quite well. Thanks for filling in that gap.

  4. Perhaps my favorite “playing dumb” detective from the Golden Age and beyond is the anything-but-dumb Miss Maud Silver, created by Patricia Wentworth. Miss Silver is really a full-fledged private investigator, but she dresses as if she were really just a simple old lady, wearing long-out-of-fashion clothes, busily sitting in a corner of the room, knitting small clothes for family babies, while the unsuspecting suspects in the room carry on their own revealing conversations, neatly overheard by this “harmless old lady”…

    • I’m glad you reminded us of Miss Silver, Les. She’s certainly innocent enough on the surface (‘Who, me? I’m just an old lady who knit.’) And she’s very good at using that ‘cover’ to find out all sorts of information. And her mind works a lot more quickly than a lot of people know…

  5. Col

    Columbo’s the one for me. I really can’t recall anything from my reading featuring this. I do have the Jim Thompson book, but not read it yet.

    • I recommend the Thompson when you get the chance to read it, Col. It’s a good ‘un, and one of the solid psychological noirs out there. And I agree: Columbo did a really effective job of developing that ‘harmless’ exterior.

  6. My father’s favourite was Columbo precisely because of that: never underestimate someone based on looks or demeanour! I think Dalziel also plays that game at times.

  7. mudpuddle

    we just had our kitchen remodeled and i had to keep my mouth shut while the contractor told me a bunch of stuff about it that i already knew, so he wouldn’t get upset and botch the job… actually i think this kind of thing is fairly common behavior, in getting along with others….

    • I think you’re right, Mudpuddle. And your experience with the contractor is a good example. Sometimes it really does serve everyone best when you don’t flaunt your knowledge.

  8. In one of his novels, Stephen King has a character say (I’m quoting by heart) “People think oxes are dumb because they are calm and unassuming. It says more about people than about oxes.”
    I read this book when I was a kid and I still remember that quote 😉

  9. You are right, Margot, this is a good device, but it does have to be handled well.

  10. kathy d.

    I liked Matlock, the simple country lawyer, as portrayed by Andy Griffith.
    And Columbo. I think my whole family liked that bumbling detective who had just one more question on his way out — and then cornered the perpetrator in a lie.
    I haven’t encountered many of these types in my reading, but I must read some books about Flavia de Luce.
    However, getting older as we all are, and I think still a work in progreses — sometimes it’s a good thing to “play dumb” or say nothing. Or nod one’s head even though that’s not what we really think.

    • Exactly, Kathy. Sometimes that reaction is the best choice. I do recommend the Flavia de Luce series; it’s quite well done, I think. And I agree about both Matlock and Columbo: they were really well-done characters.

  11. I’ve always loved that line from that song! It’s going to go round my head all day…
    I’m going to put forward Assad, assistant to Carl Morck in Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Mercy. He’s easily dismissed – dim and unknowable, we don’t even know where he comes from. But there is more going on there than we at first realize…

    • Great suggestion, Moira. Assad certainly goes much deeper than we think. And that, to me, is what makes him such an interesting character. Oh, and I like that line of the song, too…

  12. Pingback: Writing Links 6/5/17 – Where Genres Collide

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