The Chloe Ellefson Series: Wisconsin History in Murder Mysteries

Old World Murder cover

I stumbled across a mystery series (in the cozy tradition) that I’ve been enjoying, in part because these books by Kathleen Ernst point out cool aspects of Wisconsin history and heritage.

Chloe Ellefson is a curator who, in Old World Murder, has just moved to work at Old World Wisconsin, a living history recreation site, to escape some bad memories and a broken relationship. As she learns more about the artifacts collected at the site, she also gets involved in a mysterious death and meets Roelke McKenna, a police officer from the nearby town.

For those who like history and how presenting it works (including questions of accession and balancing informing the public with preserving the past), it’s a great mystery series. The way events unfold, I’m not sure “who did it” can be figured out, and our investigators are the type who keep digging and pushing until the killer finally makes a mistake, but I like the character portraits and the inclusion of some romance.

Old World Murder cover

The one thing that most bothers me is how the series is set in 1982. I know that’s because that’s when the author, Kathleen Ernst, first worked at the site herself, and because setting the book in the past allows for both an active development period at the site (instead of its more established nature today) and for not getting involved in current personalities (given how political maneuvering sometimes plays a role in the stories). Plus, writing a mystery is easier without cellphones, I suspect. Still, I wanted to know more about the site today — I think that would have made me want to visit it even more.

As the series continues, Chloe visits the following historical locations:

* In The Heirloom Murders, the Old World Wisconsin farm plays a key role in a mystery involving heirloom seeds and varieties of produce. There’s a legend of a diamond discovered in the area, a kindly older couple of Swiss heritage, and the return of Chloe’s ex, an historian experienced with heritage farming, to complicate things.

* The Light Keeper’s Legacy features Chloe camping in the Pottawatomie Lighthouse on Rock Island, a state park with no vehicles or electricity. The location is just beginning to be restored, and her story intercuts with sections set in the late 1800s, among the fishermen and their wives that then lived on the island.

* Heritage of Darkness explores Chloe’s relationship with her mother, an accomplished rosemaler (decorative painter in the Norwegian tradition). The two, along with Roelke, head to Decorah, Iowa, and their Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum for a week of classes and Christmas traditions, only to find a local well-known painter who wasn’t liked by anyone dead.

* Tradition of Deceit takes Chloe to Minneapolis to help a friend with a proposal to convert a flour mill into a museum. The background is the Polish-American history of the area. I haven’t read this one yet, but I’m looking forward to it.


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