Trust a French writer to come up with something blissfully different when it comes to crime fiction — a slim, entirely controlled novel narrated by an apparently unremarkable middle-aged woman with a serious case of exhaustion.
Patience Portefeux is 53, a widow with two daughters in university and a mother in an expensive Paris nursing home.
Family love does not abound. Patience acknowledges she’s been lacking as a mother, and her own mother has been frivolous, foolish, unloving and bitter.
Family responsibility does abound, however, and for 25 years Patience has had the job of supporting them all, through her underpaid freelance work as a translator of wiretaps of Arabic drug-dealing suspects for French police.
Thanks in part to her own criminal Tunisian father and her long-ago marriage to a man who was also loose with the law, she is skilled in Arabic and its dialects, making her a valuable asset to police.
Just as valuably, her relationships to the dodgy and even murderous entrepreneurs of her own family have left her with a cool outlook on matters of right and wrong. As well, she’s all too aware of the social and judicial brutalities inflicted on immigrants to France, particularly Arab Muslims.
That knowledge, though, doesn’t make her especially sympathetic to the drug-dealing men whose wiretaps she’s transcribing. To her listening ears, they’re mainly dolts and thugs. Then again, so are the police, often enough.
There is a family, though, to which she becomes inclined toward sympathy — a small-time operation running weed from a one-man farm in Morocco to France via relatives based in Paris.
At the beginning of the eavesdropping operation on them, they’re just running a family business that allows them to survive in an unfriendly land. It’s not hard to see that they should quietly stay that way, but it’s not long before ambition and possibilities lead them to start expanding into bigger and bigger amounts.
Patience does her job for police, but it’s when she encounters a personal connection in her mother’s nursing home — a worker who shows her mother the sort of tenderness that’s beyond Patience — that she starts getting involved herself in the family’s dealings.
Her first act is a protective one. But like the smugglers, her own ambitions and desires expand until she becomes The Godmother of the title — the mysterious, disguised woman who uses her inside knowledge to get her hands on a vast quantity of dope, and some big, stupidly arrogant men to sell it to for whatever distribution networks they have.
She does this carefully, through intricate planning, making her way through bags and bags of the stuff she keeps in her apartment building’s storage unit, and accumulating a huge income of euros she has to keep finding ways to launder.
People do die, but The Godmother isn’t a typical crime novel. Impeccably translated by Stephanie Smee, it’s an engrossing character study of a woman who tires of just trying to survive and keep her family members’ heads above water, and finally goes for broke. Or rather, for wealth.
Patience Portefeux is wonderfully unsentimental, with a cool, clever and often sardonically witty eye for relationships — not least her own — as well as for the somewhat bleak, and sometimes exploitable, nature of humans.
The Godmother, created by a Parisian novelist, screenwriter, director and criminal lawyer, has already won France’s top prize for crime fiction. Next up, it sounds exactly right that Patience is played in the ensuing film by the very cool Isabelle Huppert.
Joan Barfoot is a novelist living in London.