In the spate of crime novels pouring out of Scandinavia, the Norwegian Karen Fossum's "The Caller" is more of a Barbara Vine-style psychological study than the frenetic action combined with political messages to be found in Stieg Larsson, or the self-absorption of Mankell's angst-ridden Wallander.
We know from the outset that the "caller" is Johnny a disturbed adolescent who gains a sense of power from carrying out cruel pranks on strangers. Fossum shows how these often quite elaborate hoaxes have unexpected, disproportionately adverse effects on the mental state of each victim.
Yet, she also succeeds in revealing the appalling parenting which has sent the highly intelligent but immature Johnny down the wrong path, distorting his "normal" sense of compassion. This is not totally absent: he shows great kindness to his sick grandfather, and to his pets.
Fossum skilfully makes us feel some sympathy for Johnny, even to the extent of wanting him to escape harsh punishment, out of a morally ambiguous sense that maybe these pranks are "not that bad". Once one has realised they tend not to cause physical harm, one can be lulled into taking them less seriously, and in being mainly intrigued to find out what the next ingenious trick will be.
Yet, there is always an underlying sense of menace - eventually a prank must backfire with some unintended calamity. The story grows darker as Johnny laces his vile mother's dinner with rat poison, and in the climax of the novel, one begins to see the death toll normally associated with a crime thriller. Although I guessed a key twist at the end, the denouement is unlikely to be totally predictable.
The ending may seem a little too neat, possibly too rapid and condensed, and therefore less moving, but "The Caller" is, in short, an entertaining, well-written morality tale, which reveals the complexity of cause and effect, good and evil, and the risk of unintended consequences.