Magnus Mills’ books are always puzzling, deceptive in their simplicity. They seem to be about something ostensibly straightforward (like building fences or living in a field) and then – well, depending on your point of view, I suppose, they open themselves up for interpretation. So his last book, The Field of the Cloth of Gold, could have been about the kind of rivalries you might expect to develop if a group of different people chose to live alongside one another in that aforementioned field – but it could also have been about immigration and the current state of the world. Similarly, his latest, The Forensic Records Society could be about what it’s about (a group of men who get together to listen to records) or it could be about the way in which religions develop. Or societies. Or life, the universe and everything. But let’s rein ourselves in to start with.
To begin with, two friends (our unnamed narrator and his friend James), who enjoy listening to 45″ singles together (and who cherish the thought that “there were some records that were never heard on planet Earth unless I (or James) happened to be playing them”), decide to form a group to be held each Tuesday night at their local pub, the group being dedicated to listening to music without comment or judgement.
“a society for the express purpose of listening to records closely and in detail, forensically if you like, without any interruption or distraction. There would be regular gatherings, and membership would depend on some kind of test to make sure people are genuinely interested.”
James quickly reveals himself to be something of a stickler for rules – refusing entry to latecomers, quashing debate when it arises and marking a role for himself as leader. A gentleman who is turned away goes on to form his own (much more popular) group, in which people listen to records and then confess (with hordes of women wearing I Confessed t-shirts as they attempt to encourage others to join the rival group). A young woman who is turned away develops a seething hatred of our narrator even as she takes a job in the pub and seems to start a relationship with James. There are shortcomings, misgivings and misunderstandings. There is “bickering, desertion, subterfuge and rivalry.” Our narrator comes to wonder:
“Was it really beyond human capacity, I pondered, to create a society which didn’t ultimately disintegrate through internal strife? Or collapse under the weight of its own laws? Or suffer damaging rivalries with other societies?”
For about 190 of its 192 pages, The Forensic Records Society is the kind of blast regular readers of Magnus Mills will have come to know and love. You’ll read and you’ll follow what is going on on the surface of the book and you’ll wonder (as you always wonder with a Magnus Mills book) what is going on beneath the surface, whether the action is metaphorical, whether you are picking up on all the clues etc. And then the book ends somewhat abruptly and in a way this particular reader didn’t quite get (to the extent of wondering what we’d missed). But that is one of the joys of reviewing. We know that there are people out there smarter than us who will do a good job of explaining to us what we missed.
Any Cop?: End aside, The Forensic Records Society is a delight, not a million miles away from David Keener’s This is Memorial Device in some ways (in that this is a book that will appeal to a certain kind of music fan) and sure to puzzle and entertain his many fans.