“Foote: A Mystery Novel” by Tom Bredehoft

Reviewed by Meredith Sue Willis

Foote: A Mystery Novel  (West Virginia University Press, 2022), described as a cryptid murder mystery, shares some qualities with a cozy. But unlike a typical cozy with an amateur sleuth in an English village, the narrator here, Big Jim Foote, is a professional if somewhat desultory private investigator, whose real role is troubleshooter for the cryptids who live secretly in the mountain hollows of Northern West Virginia. And if you don’t know what a cryptid is, I didn’t either: Merriam-Webster says it is “an animal (such as…the Loch Ness Monster) that has been claimed to exist but never proven to exist.”  In other words, we are talking Bigfoot, and Jim tells us to use the singular and never call them biggies or sasquatch.

What makes for the cozy quality is Big Jim’s easygoing, inviting voice and the story’s small town location: Morgantown, West Virginia, home of the state’s land grant university. Also, as in a cozy, the murders happen offstage, with minimal gore (the same can’t be said, however, of the significant volume of vomit involved in one of them).

The story has a lot of momentum. Big Jim is constantly tracking clues, but there is also a lot about the challenges of being Bigfoot in a human world. Big Jim’s personal difficulties include lacking a birth certificate and driver’s license. Only two or three townspeople know the secret (and some of the details aren’t revealed even to us readers till the final line). One extended family, the Lovingood clan, lives high up on the mountain bordering the Bigfoot Homeland, and they also know Jim’s secret.

Foote lightly touches on contemporary politics and other issues, and it is a book, it seems to me, that would make an excellent introduction to real, contemporary northern West Virginia. The author knows his setting, and he is able to use the crude stereotypes so many people have of Appalachia and simultaneously to undermine them. The minor human characters include a retired professor of medieval studies and an opioid-dispensing doctor as well as victims of opioid addiction and locals who have finished or left college and hang around the bars and cafés. One crucial fight scene takes place at some buildings on the University campus where forensics classes learn how to examine crime scenes. Also making an appearance in the novel is the excellent rails-to-trails system that you find through much of West Virginia–repurposed railroad right-of-ways that allow travel by foot and bicycle.

The clannish Lovingoods up in the mountains come close to the hillbilly stereotype: they generally keep to themselves and continue the family tradition of brewing, growing, and otherwise dabbling in illicit substances. They present, however, a full range of human types: a child who doesn’t even know she’s a Lovingood; people you can depend on to have your back; and the ones who might cheerfully stab you in the back.

The Lovingoods also show up for some thoroughly modern local festivals, which are another of the pleasures of this novel. It opens with a ramp festival–ramps being the powerful green in the onion family that mountaineers used to seek out in the woods as the first fresh vegetable of the year. At the festival, there are handicrafts, not necessarily traditional, and country songs (also not necessarily traditional) and deep-fried ramps (Big Jim’s favorite) as well as ramp quiche. Later, there is a different festival that includes a reenactment of a battle of the French and Indian war with antique muskets. Needless to say, you should keep your eye on those muskets.

Wandering through all this rich Appalachian material is Big Jim Foote. Low key and likable both as a neighbor and as a narrator, Jim is troubled by being suspected of murder and by the possibility that the real killer is indeed a Bigfoot. With a light touch but serious intent, the novel explores what is human, and the idea of speciesism, mostly through the challenges of Jim’s daily life.

Jim likes people, but is often puzzled by them and has trouble reading expression and tone– more than a little like those we speak of as being “on the spectrum.”  Big Jim, and perhaps by extension all Bigfoot, doesn’t seem much interested in sex (and the question of whether Bigfoot and human beings can have sex with each other is posed but not answered). There are a lot of things never explained about Bigfoot culture and biology, but that vagueness works because we are completely sold on the voice guiding us through the book and willing to imagine, or just suspend disbelief.

Tom Bredehoft

There’s a lot going on: Big Jim gets beat up but bravely carries on in true PI style. There is a funny scene of two Bigfoot trying to fit in at a local café. There are some appealing human characters and some appalling ones. All in all, it’s an excellent story that raises interesting questions and teaches those who are interested about a very particular real place. There is a satisfying conclusion, and maybe best of all—indications that Big Jim will a return!

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