Linn Ullmann's 'The Cold Song' Is Chilling for Its Realism as Much as Its Murder Mystery Angle

If you've been looking for a good literary crime novel, look no further. The Cold Song (Other Press) by bestselling Norwegian novelist Linn Ullmann is an intimate and evocative family drama that's told like a thriller, and is all the more terrifying for its humanity and realism. Even in translation, the prose hits all the right notes and manages to be chilling without being sensational.

When the troubled Dreyer family first hired 19-year-old Milla as a nanny for their annual summer holiday to Norwegian beach town, no one could have predicted just how she would fit into the strained family dynamic. And certainly no one could have predicted that she would be murdered. After her disappearance, the whole community searches for her, with no luck. Yet two years later, her body is unearthed, and the reader is transported back to the fateful summer that she vanished, getting an up close look at the dysfunctional family she worked for.

From Jon Dreyer, a novelist who has been hiding his writer's block for nine years, to Siri Dreyer, a frustrated and angry chef, to their oddball daughter Alma, to Jenny, Siri's abusive mother, the Dreyer family is full of problems great and small, years of resentments and unresolved issues often simmering under the surface. As the fateful summer progresses, tensions run high and relationships begin to unravel. And one can't help but wonder: even though an unrelated local boy was arrested for Milla's death, did someone in the Dreyer family have a hand in it after all?

Unlike a conventional crime thriller, the tension in Ullmann's novel comes not from action but from the relationships, all of which are not just dysfunctional, but somehow off. There is something not quite right about the family and its various members — whether it be the mutual, yet strangely lopsided attraction between Jon and 19-year-old nanny or Alma's strange, loner behavior or the fact that Siri once saw her 4-year-old brother drown in a lake, an often retold story with many different versions, all of them unsettling.

Yet Ullmann's observations of human nature are also spot on. The world she has created for her readers is unnerving not because her characters are exceptional or sensational but because they are so ordinary and so real. And although they come across as somehow wrong, it's hard at times to pinpoint the reason why. They are in many ways just normal people, in a family with large but not unusual problems. They are fully fleshed out an believable. And yet there is also something quite right about them, or the family.

And, of course, the tension and unease is only increased by the fact that the reader knows how the summer will end. There is a murder lurking on the horizon, and although we learn early that someone outside of the Dreyer family is arrested for it, it's hard not to wonder if someone else might have been responsible — and disturbing to realize that it wouldn't a surprise to find out it was any one of them.