Hannelore Cayre, The Godmother (2019)

Review by Lee Horsley

Hannelore Cayre’s The Godmother (published as La Daronne in France) was one of the unexpected delights of this year’s reading. It began to receive widespread recognition when Cayre – a criminal lawyer as well as a screenwriter and director – won both the European Crime Fiction Prizeand the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière, France’s most prestigious award for crime fiction. 

It’s easy to see why Cayre’s achievement has created such a stir. Her exuberant, blackly comic thriller is mischievous, subversive and unfailingly suspenseful. It carries a sharply observed critique of French social structures and of underlying sexist and racist stereotyping. But unquestionably what most gives the novel its terrific energy and appeal is the unforgettable voice of its witty, sardonic and irreverent anti-heroine, Patience Portefeux.

A 53-year old, poorly paid Franco-Arab interpreter for the Ministry of Justice, Patience is desperate to escape her financial woes. Then fate intervenes, unexpectedly giving her a chance to redeem her fortunes by applying her skill in translating police wiretaps of North African drug gangs. She uses her specialist knowledge to embark on a wholly unofficial second career, infiltrating the criminal underground running drugs from Africa to Paris. Her double life involves pragmatically applying the scraps of information she gains from the drug traffickers’ conversations – first to find the hiding place of an enormous stash of highest quality hash dumped by a hapless Moroccan arrested by the police; then to steal it, store it and set about transforming herself into a dealer.

Patience decides that knowing the rough area where the stash was hidden is not enough to go on without some expert help, so she searches out a retired drug squad dog to adopt. His name is DNA – “one ugly-looking mutt”, trained for drugs and currency detection. It’s a wonderful partnership:

“I loved everything about him: his harlequin coat, the lack of proportion in his body shape which rivalled only mine…and the fact that he instantly decided to attach himself to my feet wherever I went, like a shadow in the shape of a dog…The moment DNA set foot in my door I had so many things to tell him that I didn’t stop talking… Plus, we had a job to do as a matter of urgency: ‘We’re going to take a look on Google Earth to see where that Moroccan idiot could have stashed his load. Yes we are, yes we are, yes we are…’”

After a nail-biting journey to take possession of the hash, Patience has to think carefully about the tricky problem of how she can create a secret identity as a dealer. Her professional habits of scrupulously accurate translation and transcription enable her to identify promising customers – “a bunch of guys sufficiently idiotic not to wonder where I might have sprung from, and who had an urgent need for product as a result of a delivery mishap.”  Once she has decided on quantity and price, she sends an SMS to a dealer nicknamed Scotch – and, of course, has to sort out an appropriate identity for herself:

“Most importantly, I had to hide my white hair which stood out in a crowd of thousands. I had great fun disguising myself. I opted for Moroccan bled chic: fake black and gold Chanel sun-glasses, leopard print hijab, black khôl eyeliner, pant-suit with long tunic, gold bracelets (lots of them) and diamanté watch, orange nails and shiny nylons. I was unrecognisable. A very respectable Maghrebi business woman. The perfect chameleon.”

After the transaction has successfully taken place, Patience is delighted when she translates an exchange that both testifies to the quality of her product and gives her new identity a name. She hears Scotch telling his friend that this is “the OG shit, totally sick” and that he’s “gonna work the whole year with this weird-ass godmother chick”. At first she worries that she has to leave the word “godmother” in the text, which, like all of their exchanges, will become available to police via wiretaps. But then she realises “that I’d just found my criminal alias. So, I’d be the Godmother.”  

The Godmother has now been made into a film starring Isabelle Huppert, released on Netflix under the title Mama Weed in September 2020. In Guardian interview about the film, Huppert says, “I don’t conform. The way I act is my own still” – an attitude that would seem to fit perfectly with playing the determinedly maverick character of Patience.