When translators go rogue: Hannelore Cayre’s The Godmother, tr. Stephanie Smee (France)

Hannelore Cayre, The Godmother, tr. from the French by Stephanie Smee, Old Street Publishing 2020

Opening line: My parents were crooks, with a visceral love of money.

I re-read this smart, blackly comic French crime novel while holidaying in Weston-super-Mare — a setting about as far removed from Paris as Jupiter (think chips on the beach, donkey rides etc.) And I’ve found myself thinking increasingly about the central figure of ‘The Godmother’ over the last few days, probably due to the news coverage of this Sunday’s French elections.

Meet Madame Patience Portefeux, a respectable 53-year-old French-Arabic translator and interpreter whom life has dealt a series of blows. After years of freelancing and struggling to pay her mother’s care home fees, she realises that all she can expect is a poverty-stricken, pension-less old age. When fate hands her the opportunity to get rich, thanks to her work translating police phone-taps of drug gang conversations, she takes it, fashioning a new identity for herself as The Godmother, drug dealer extraordinaire.

Patience relates her story with wit and verve – all credit to Stephanie Smee here for her assured and sparky translation. And it really is a hugely funny, outrageous tale featuring an eccentric cast of characters, such as DNA the ex-drug-detection-dog. But reading the novel for a second time, I definitely appreciated its satirical dimensions more. The author has some serious things to say about middle-aged women who endlessly prop up their offspring and parents, the financial traps that poorly paid freelancers can fall into, and the way in which French racism and the collapse of the ‘social contract’ (work-hard-and-you’ll-be-rewarded) can lead individuals to a life of crime.

The latter applies to her own parents – Patience is the daughter of a French-Tunisian father and Austrian-Jewish mother – as well as to young men from immigrant communities in the banlieues outside Paris. And it’s notable that this outwardly respectable and very ‘French’ woman is careful not to reveal her own complex heritage to others: it’s vital that she’s perceived as someone who belongs, not a ‘vulgar foreigner or outsider’ — unless she’s posing as a Moroccan drug dealer, that is….

The Godmother won the 2019 European Crime Fiction Prize, the 2019 Grand Prix de Littérature Policière, and the 2020 CWA Crime Fiction in Translation Dagger Award. It was recently made into a warmly received film entitled La daronne / Mama Weed (2020/2021), starring none other than the fabulous Isabelle Huppert.

On boggy ground: Tana French’s The Searcher (Ireland)

Tana French, The Searcher, Penguin 2020

First line: When Cal comes out of the house, the rooks have got hold of something. 

I loved this crime novel’s premise: a Chicago police detective takes early retirement after twenty-five years of service and a tricky divorce, and starts over in rural west Ireland. While fixing up his dilapidated house, he’s approached by a local teenager whose older brother has gone missing. Will he help?

Characterisation and location are at the heart of this novel, so everything unfolds at a leisurely pace. We come to know ex-cop Cal Hooper, teenager Trey and the inhabitants of Ardnaskelty, and get a feel for the dynamics of village life. While Cal really doesn’t want to get involved, Trey’s invisibility as the child of a poor family disliked by the community bothers him. Before he knows it, he’s started to investigate – and to stir things up.

Something about Cal reminded me of an old-fashioned sheriff in Westerns like High Noon. He has moral codes and a strong sense of right and wrong, but soon realises that things are more complex than he could ever have dreamed. Choices will have to be made, and the ground he walks on as an outsider is extremely boggy in parts – literally and metaphorically.

The Searcher is a thoughtful and satisfying crime novel with a particularly keen sense of place – conveyed both though its descriptions of nature and brilliant dialogue. Tourist Board Ireland this ain’t, but it’ll have a grip on you by the end.

Reading The Searcher reminded me of two other excellent (literary) crime novels.

In Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone (2006), teenager Ree searches for her missing father amid the grinding rural poverty of the American Ozarks. Trey’s brittle toughness and determination put me in mind of Ree, and the novel’s sense of place and dialogue are equally evocative. Jennifer Lawrence starred in the much-lauded film.

And then we have Jess Kidd’s Himself (2016), which is one of my all-time favourite crime novels. Like The Searcher, it’s set in a remote Irish village with an eccentric cast of characters, and traces a young man’s search for Orla, his vanished mother. It’s a freewheeling, psychedelic, wholly original portrait of 1970s rural Ireland, and although it’s tonally quite different to The Searcher, it also explores the secrecy and darkness that outwardly respectable communities hide.

Wishing you all a wonderful Easter break filled with bunnies, chocolate and plenty of crime!