Murder & Mayhem at Vesterheim Museum | Murder and Mayhem at Vesterheim Museum

Heritage of Darkness is the fourth installment in the Chloe Ellefson mystery series.

Kathleen Ernst, author of the Chloe Ellefson Historic Sites mystery series, has set her latest novel, Heritage of Darkness, at Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah, where she will be signing books and leading a special Chloe tour of the museum in early December. We recently had the chance to ask Kathleen a few questions about the fourth installment in the Chloe Ellefson series.

You say on your website that you want to imbue your novels with a strong sense of place. What drew you to set your novel in Decorah and at Vesterheim? And what aspects of those places did you try to highlight in Heritage of Darkness?
Two factors were particularly appealing. First, Vesterheim is a phenomenal museum. The combination of its amazing collection of artifacts, the outdoor division, special events, and extensive folk art class offerings is unique. Second, I enjoy spending time in Decorah itself—a lovely town in a beautiful area. I love introducing special places to my readers, and many plan visits to the sites and communities featured in the books, and I feel certain that they’ll enjoy the community as much as I do. 

Rosemaling plays an important role in the novel and you bravely decided to learn to do it. How was it learning to do this traditional form of decorative painting?
I took my first rosemaling class at Vesterheim thinking only to learn about the art in an intellectual way. It was challenging! However, I also discovered that I love to paint. I’ve been returning for more classes ever since. In Heritage of Darkness the main character in the series, Chloe Ellefson, takes her first rosemaling class at Vesterheim. She struggles to catch on, but I hope that in the end my own love of rosemaling shines through.

viking ship replica

Kathleen Ernst learns rosemaling at Vesterheim.

Chloe Ellefson is a curator at Old World Wisconsin, a living history museum where you worked for 12 years beginning in 1982, the same year in which the Chloe Ellefson series is set. What else do you have in common with Chloe?
Chloe lives in the same farmhouse I rented for many years. Just like me, she went to college at West Virginia University, loves hiking and the outdoors, is passionate about history (especially women’s history), is a vegetarian, drives an old Ford Pinto, has a cat… in many ways we have much in common. However, I developed her personality and backstory in a fictional way intended to serve the stories. In some ways she’s much braver than I am, for example.

Unlike many contemporary murder mysteries, your Chloe Ellefson novels do not include any graphic sex, violence, or gore. What made you decide to go the more traditional route?
As a reader and a writer, I’m most intrigued by character development and the complexities of human interaction. I want to write about topics and places I care about; and I hope readers come to care about Chloe and other recurring characters as complex individuals. I work hard to twine historical events and characters with what happens in Chloe’s world, and to develop compelling themes. Graphic sex, violence, or gore wouldn’t add anything positive to the mix.

Personally, I think it adds to the appeal when a mystery novel is set in a real location that I can explore in real life, but what made you decide to set your Chloe Ellefson novels in real historic sites instead of fictional ones?
I began writing the series as a way to reconnect with the historic sites world, which I missed. For me, exploring real sites and museums is much easier than trying to fabricate a mythical place. Based on mail from readers, most people love knowing that they are reading about an actual place. I provide lots of resources on my website to help readers visit the setting for each Chloe mystery. Maps and slide shows provide virtual visits, and locations guides help those readers who want to visit in person.

viking ship replica

Kathleen at the Valdres House in Vesterheim’s Open Air Division. Photo by Kay Klubertanz.

You have an event coming up on December 5 at Vesterheim Museum. Are you planning any other Heritage of Darkness events in Iowa in the coming months?
I’m very excited about the special Chloe tour at Vesterheim on December 5!  I’ll also be signing books at the Vesterheim Store from noon until 5 on Saturday, December 7.

Tell me a little about your other books.
I have written many books for young readers. In addition to a handful of Civil War novels for teens, I write for American Girl—including creating Caroline Abbott, the newest historical character. I also write poetry and essays, and wrote a nonfiction book called Too Afraid To Cry: Maryland Civilians in the Antietam Campaign.

Is there anything else you would like to share about your books or your experiences in Decorah and at Vesterheim Museum?
In Heritage of Darkness I thank the Decorah and Vesterheim community for making my husband and me feel like part of the family, and that came straight from the heart. We have always been warmly welcomed, and have made many friends in Decorah.