Old World Murder by Kathleen Ernst
Originally Published 2010
Chloe Ellefson #1
Followed by The Heirloom Murders
Trying to leave painful memories behind her, Chloe Ellefson is making a fresh start. She’s the new collections curator at Old World Wisconsin, an outdoor ethnic museum showcasing 1870s settlement life. On her first day, Chloe meets with an elderly woman who begs her to find a priceless eighteenth-century Norwegian ale bowl that had been donated to the museum years ago. But before Chloe can find the heirloom and return it to her, the woman dies in a suspicious car crash.
Digging up the history and whereabouts of the rare artifact quickly turns dangerous. Chloe discovers that someone is desperately trying to cover up all traces of the bowl’s existence―by any means necessary. Assisting Chloe is police officer Roelke McKenna, whose own haunting past compels him to protect her. To catch the covetous killer, Chloe must solve a decades-old puzzle…before she becomes a part of history herself.
Old World Murder was the first in a series of mysteries featuring Chloe Ellefson, a curator at the real-life ethnic history museum Old World Wisconsin. I am always on the lookout for cozy mysteries with original or very distinctive settings and given my love of history this seemed a particularly promising fit for me.
Chloe has recently returned to the United States after living in Switzerland for several years. The return was somewhat sudden after her boyfriend abruptly ends their relationship and she is trying to make the best of this new start. Unfortunately her arrival is anything but smooth and on her first day she upsets several colleagues.
The worst comes at the end of the day when an elderly woman meets with her and begs her to find and return an eighteenth century wooden ale bowl that she donated several decades earlier. Chloe tries to explain that she has only just arrived but the woman remains agitated and when Chloe leaves work shortly afterwards she discovers the woman has died in a car crash.
Blaming herself Chloe tries to track down the bowl, feeling that she owes it to her to keep a promise she made but she soon discovers that the bowl is missing. More suspicious still, the paperwork for its transfer to the museum has been ripped out of the book leaving Chloe to suspect that the death was not accidental…
While Old World Murder is a mystery novel, I think its strongest arc is the development of Chloe throughout the novel. When we first meet her she is tired, depressed and for all of her talk about how she is hopeful about this fresh start there is a sense of doom evident in the way she talks about her future. She feels out of step with life and intimidated by the younger, more driven intern she is working with and seems to lack confidence that she will succeed.
This book tracks her transformation as she becomes more assertive and regains her interest in living. This takes a while but part of the journey we take with her is learning about exactly what happened in Switzerland and why she has found herself in Wisconsin. Learning about those aspects of her journey made it much easier to sympathize with her situation and to relate to her feelings. This characterization work isn’t always subtle but it is superbly structured and I do think Ernst does a very good job of developing her in the course of this adventure.
Chloe is not the only perspective character Ernst provides however as she also introduces us to Roelke McKenna, a police officer who she encounters and frustrates frequently throughout the novel. Ernst tries to flesh out his character too with information about his childhood and family life, starting with simple story point about his father but adding some complexities and nuance to that relationship. He is not a perfect man and I found their interactions to miss the cute bickering sweet spot to fall more frequently into serious disagreement territory. The romance didn’t really work for me here but I think it ties in with and develops the broader themes of the novel.
The history museum aspect of the novel lived up to my expectations as the author was able to draw on some personal experience of both the profession and of the actual location that this book is set at (though, as she notes in an introductory note, many of the buildings are fictional). There are some interesting details about how collections are developed and these historic sites are run that are introduced in ways that feel germane to the story and its themes and I came away feeling like I had a better understanding of this world.
Incidentally, I also found the discussion about the nature of the apparently stolen object to be interesting and appreciated the information the book gives about the value of such items to the Norwegian immigrants. Some titles have difficulty integrating that sort of research into the body of a novel without it feeling like research dumping but given the object’s significance to this case it didn’t feel like the case here.
Ernst’s decision to set her story several decades ago was a smart one on several levels. For one thing it places the action closer to a time she had experience of this setting but it also avoids the problem of information being instantly accessible and creates communications issues for the characters. While there are some period details, mostly this is kept in the background or used sparingly to add color to scenes.
Turning to the mystery itself, I have rather more mixed feelings.
While I can understand Chloe’s feeling upset at the death of the elderly woman she was trying to help, I do think her motivations for getting so closely involved in what is clearly a very dangerous case are weak. Now, I understand that it is pretty typical of a protagonist in one of these stories to take risks in pursuing a killer but usually this occurs later in the story and is a fairly isolated incident. Chloe is reckless from the start of this novel however, frequently putting herself in harm’s way for seemingly little returns. While I recognize that this plays into the idea that she is depressed and not really taking care of herself, it does have the effect of making her look rather foolish and impulsive as she repeatedly makes the same choice (which, admittedly, Roelke does call her out on).
I did appreciate that the initial appearance of the crime did feel perfectly pitched to the setting, situations and characters Ernst had created. For most of this story Chloe is investigating the apparent theft of a historical item and while there may be some suspicion of foul play when it comes to the death, she isn’t setting out to try and beat the police. Instead she is trying to find answers to something they cannot investigate and that may be evidence that they should be treating that death as murder.
Which brings me to the solution which I found equally brilliant and frustrating. Being as vague as I can be, I can say that there are some ideas introduced in that solution that struck me as being quite surprising and clever. Those developments are not always entirely clued, though once you are told what they are it is easy to find evidence for them.
On the other hand, I found the villain’s identity to be quite disappointing. It is not so much that I had my heart set on someone else but rather that I felt that there wasn’t sufficient evidence for the reader to work it out for themselves. Those who read cozies as adventures will not mind this but if you are looking for a good puzzle then you may leave disappointed.
Where does all that leave me overall with the novel? Well, I would say that I found it to be a pretty enjoyable read. Chloe has appeal and promise as a protagonist and while I do not crave for her to get together with Roelke, I could see how that relationship might be built on in subsequent stories to be something I might feel a little more comfortable with.
Though it is not a perfect read, Old World Murder entertains and informs enough that I found myself to be pretty absorbed by it.