Tradition of Deceit – A Retrospective

Front cover of Tradition of Deceit, the fifth book in the Chloe Ellefson Mystery series by bestselling author Kathleen Ernst.As I began conceptualizing Tradition of Deceit, the 5th Chloe Ellefson Mystery, I had several goals in mind. Since main characters Chloe and Roelke were getting along pretty well by the end of the previous book, I figured it was time to throw a new challenge their way:  distance.

I’d heard good things about the Mill City Museum after it opened in 2003. For much of the book, Chloe is in Minneapolis while Roelke is in Milwaukee. Both get tangled in murder investigations that involve good friends. How will they cope?

Back of the mill complex.

In Chloe’s day the mill was an enormous abandoned industrial site. The opportunity to have Chloe visit an urban historic site was intriguing. The mill itself told important stories from the days when Minneapolis was the flour milling capital of the world. After one visit I knew it had great potential as setting for a murder mystery. 

Taking notes on a behind-the-scenes tour.

Featuring this site also had good potential to satisfy another series goal—to provide a glimpse of the challenges inherent in museum work. In the 1980s, the abandoned mill provided shelter for many homeless people. This presented a dilemma for the historians working to turn the site into a museum. Chloe’s decision to help a friend develop an interpretive plan for the mill put her right in the middle of the debate.

Homeless Protest Master combined

(Star Tribune, May 2, 1990)

Choosing the mill as the setting also let me feature Polish immigrants and their experience in the new world. New food traditions and folk art! A thread of historical fiction gave me a chance to imagine the challenges faced by an immigrant woman named Magdalena and her descendants.

IMG_0802 - Version 2 – Version 3

Magdalena was skilled at Polish paper cutting, such as this piece displayed at the Old South Side Settlement Museum, Urban Anthropology Inc., Donated by Konkel Family.

Cop Roelke McKenna’s experience of trying to solve a friend’s murder in Milwaukee let me echo some of these same themes. Milwaukee was home to a large population of Polish immigrants as well. That commonality let me link Chloe’s mystery with Roelke’s.

Basilica of St. Josaphat

The Basilica of St. Josaphat, Milwaukee.

And, Roelke fans were letting me know they’d like to see even more of him. In Tradition of Deceit Roelke faces his most painful and challenging investigation. New aspects of his character are revealed as he follows both his heart and the sketchy clues.

I don’t outline stories in advance, so when I begin I’m not sure where any given story is going, or exactly how it will be resolved. This book had a more complicated structure than most, but in the end I think the pieces fell into place quite nicely. It’s one of my favorites.

SPOILER ALERT:  Plot points discussed below!

During my first scouting trip to the Mill City Museum, I learned about the tragedy of 1878, when the first Washburn A Mill exploded because no one at the time understood that the flour dust clouding the air was combustible. Eighteen workers died.

Harpers Weekly, May, 1878.

I wanted to include that in the book, but anyone working in the mill at that time was male. How to get a woman in the building? Playing with that question led to the creation of Magdalena and the historical plotline. I needed a plausible reason to get her into the mill on that tragic night.

One of readers’ favorite characters in this book is Pawel, a mill worker who gives Magdalena a chance to dream of happier days:

Magdalena regarded him. Pawel was a big man with massive shoulders and corded muscles rippling in his arms. He spent his 12-hour shifts rolling 196-lb. barrels of flour from the packing machines into train cars. He was part of the Polish Eagles, a six-man crew that usually bested other packing teams when challenged to a race.   No one would pick a fight with Pawel.

But unlike some of the other laborers, Pawel had a gentle manner. His face was broad and plain, his hair the color of dried mud, his hands huge. No one would call him handsome, but Magdalena liked him. She thought he liked her. Maybe, she thought, just maybe…

General Mills included this engraving from the 1880s in a 20th-century ad.

It would have felt too pat to have Magdalena visit the mill simply to see Pawel. Instead she goes to obtain some flour in hopes of baking a treat for him.

In the end, Magdalena’s legacy collides with Roelke’s search for answers to Rick’s death. When Roelke’s struggling to find Erin, the young woman who’d fled her abusive husband years before, his first clue is a business card decorated with wycinanki:

“All I have is this.” Danielle scrabbled in her pocket. “I found this sort of business card thing this morning under the coat hooks we use.”

Roelke felt his nerves quiver as Danielle extracted a creased business card. An address, a phone number—he’d be grateful for even the tiniest scrap of information.

He didn’t get an address. He got chickens. Two very pretty chickens, flanking a bouquet of flowers, printed in vibrant colors. It was all very artsy, and not the least bit helpful.

I made this wycinanki piece to represent the one described in the book.

Tradition of Deceit is all about power—who wants it, and what they’ll do to get it; who has it, and what they’ll do to keep it. One of the people abusing power is Professor Everett Whyte, the man found stuffed into a turn head distributor in the old mill. Whyte’s male students and colleagues admired him; his female students, not so much. I based Whyte on one of my college professors who made inappropriate suggestions to me and other female students. When I reported my professor’s behavior, my advisor replied, “Is he up to those old tricks again?” Evidently it was well known that my professor harassed women.

The turn head distributor at the Mill City Museum.

The book is also about secrets. Secrets, abuses of power, and geography might have meant the end of Chloe and Roelke’s relationship. Was Roelke’s emotional reserve understandable? Had Rick been right to keep a secret from his best friend? What did you think?

You can explore relevant people, places, and the past on mwebpage for Tradition of Deceit. Resources include a Google map, color images of key artifacts, a Discussion Guide, recipes, and links to lots of additional background material.

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6 Responses to “Tradition of Deceit – A Retrospective”

  1. Agnes Says:

    Beautiful book about women abuse in history!

  2. Ruth Says:

    I liked this book as I am a Minnesotan!

  3. Jill Nisbet Says:

    Each book I try to guess who did it,and I was absolutely shocked that Bliss was the guilty party.

  4. Mary Jean Samer Says:

    I liked it, but really liked books 6 & 7 better. I recently finished 7, A Memory of Muskets and liked it a lot especially where Chloe and Roelke’s relationship was at the end of that book; and dispelling the “demons” or at least very bad vibes from the shed so it could become a special place for Chloe was a nice touch. I actually read book 8 first, but think maybe I should reread that before #9 comes out next fall. Hope you plan to keep writing them! I always learn a bit of history as well as have an enjoyable read. I enjoy the 2ndary stories that are connected to the place but take us back in time. Thanks! MJ SAMER

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