The Godmother
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The Godmother

Hannelore Cayre, Stephanie Smee

Meet Patience Portefeux, fifty-three, an underpaid Franco-Arab judicial interpreter for the Ministry of Justice who specialises in telephone tapping. Widowed after the sudden death of her husband, Patience is now wedged between university fees for her two grown-up daughters and nursing home costs for her ageing mother. She’s laboured for twenty-five years to keep everyone’s heads above water.

Happening upon an especially revealing set of police wiretaps ahead of all other authorities, Patience makes a life-altering decision that sees her intervening in - and infiltrating - the machinations of a massive drug deal. She thus embarks on an entirely new career path: Patience becomes ‘the Godmother'.

This is not life in the French idyll of postcards and stock photos. With a gallery of traffickers, dealers, police officers and politicians who are more real than life itself, a sharp and amusing gaze on everyday survival in contemporary France, and an unforgettable woman at its centre, Hannelore Cayre’s bestselling novel shines a torchlight on a European criminal underground that has rarely been seen.


This striking little oddity comes with a hefty dose of French fame – it won the European Crime Fiction Prize, the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière, and has been made into a film starring one of the most perfectly French actresses around – Isabelle Huppert. Hannelore Cayre is a writer and a director, but most importantly, she is also a practicing criminal lawyer who knows what it’s like on the law side of things – and, you’ll believe by the end, the unlawful side as well.

Patience Portefeux is an interpreter who spends most of her time translating tapped phone calls between drug dealers, a job that is banal and so poorly paid that she can’t see a way out of it to a better future. One in which she’s not paying for her mother’s haphazard care in a retirement home, or feeling something close to guilt about her two distant daughters, whose upbringing wasn’t particularly perfect after their father’s death at a devastatingly young age. Patience, however, doesn’t really have time to dwell on the past or any mistakes – but she does have the time to get involved in the lives of those whose calls she listens in on. When her affection towards one family sees her cross a line when a bust is imminent, she is suddenly and cunningly in possession of a rather enormous quantity of illegal substances. What she also has in her possession is a laundry list of people who are interested – and whose conversations in Arabic are only understood by one member of the police department: Patience herself. And so, ‘The Godmother’ is born, and France’s seedy underworld rises to the fore.

This book is exuberant and understated all at once; an almost stream-of-consciousness calamity of French darkness and humour, it follows a woman with more practicality than passion who sees the world in myriad fascinating ways. It’s thrilling to read a crime novel from the point of view of the Bad Guy (and without the usual prologues and asides of a predator’s grim thoughts). There are flashes of a glamorous childhood whose riches were squeezed from blood; an abruptly downtrodden adulthood, and the clawing back of a real life, all with the backdrop of Patience’s admirable determination and her less admirable view of humanity. Translated with spunk by Stephanie Smee, this is absolute champagne entertainment.

Fiona Hardy is our monthly crime fiction columnist, and also blogs about children’s books at Fiona The Hardy.

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