The Godmother by Hannelore Cayre and Stephanie Smee (trans.)
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.