The Forensic Records Society by Magnus Mills
Magnus Mills’ new novel is a beautifully produced thing. It’s seven inches square, and the die-cut dust-jacket is just like a single record sleeve. Underneath, the front and back covers have all the blurb and publishing details on the record label of the seven inches of black vinyl pictured. They could have made it even lovelier by punching the record’s hole through the cover(s) – but given that Bloomsbury are already charging £18.99 for this book of under 200 pages they’d probably have slapped another quid on to the price for that. Lovely design, shame about the price.
Magnus Mills’ last two novels have been set in other times and/or places – The Field of the Cloth of Gold in the 1500s , and A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In is a sort of Ruritanian fantasy, although both are still about his novels’ main theme – men and their work. In The Forensic Records Society he returns to the present day . However, there is one difference – this is not a novel about men and their work – it’s mostly about men and their hobbies.
Our unnamed narrator and his mate James are collectors and connoisseurs of the seven inch single. They get together to play and analyse tracks, comparing different recordings, playing songs multiple times. After wondering whether they’re the only people in the world listening to a particular track, our narrator says:
‘Besides,’ I added, ‘nobody else is interested. Nobody listens. Not properly anyway. Not like we do.’ (p2)
James says he’s been thinking about starting a club, finding some like-minded souls:
‘We could form a society for the express purpose of listening to records closely and in detail, forensically if you like, without any interruption or distraction.’ (p4)
Thus The Forensic Records Society is born. It’ll meet Monday evenings in the back room at the Half Moon. They put up a poster and they soon gather a few members, although a bloke in a long black leather coat who’d been too late to take part never turns up again. James has a rigid format for the evening:
‘I thought three goes per person would provide a nice balance.’ he explained. ‘Not too many and not too few. Records would be played in strict rotation, of course, which should ensure a degree of variety. Obviously there will be no comments or judgment of other people’s tastes. We’ll be here simply to listen.’ (p8)
Some members find it hard not to comment after hearing tracks. Mike, who is searching for the perfect three minute single, finds it hard not to comment, or quote lyrics after hearing a track. Another member came the first time with ‘long-players’ not realising it was all about singles – and they all listen to the challenging Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together in a Cave and Grooving With a Pict (a real Pink Floyd song from Atom Heart Mother in case you didn’t know!). They’re beginning to hit their groove when a new poster goes up in the pub…
CONFESSIONAL RECORDS SOCIETY … TUESDAY … BRING A RECORD OF YOUR CHOICE AND CONFESS! (p30)
A rival group! Would any one defect to it? Things are complicated further by the arrival of a new barmaid, Alice, who doesn’t think much of them, calling them ’emotionally retarded’. As always in a Mills novel, she is unattainable and superior to our nerdy crew of blokes.
Soon we have schism in the society. They discover the Confessional RS is being run by Phillip, the guy in the black coat. They appear to have a very different model for membership, rejecting Mike. The original group are now bickering, James is enforcing his strict rules, so a new splinter group is formed. James and Alice now seem as thick as thieves, and James has a blank labelled single – a demo with just a number on it, a record made by Alice, which he won’t play for the group.
I can’t tell you any more, but as you can imagine, a typically ‘Millsian’ (anti)climax will eventually occur after some frantic yet completely dead-pan antics.
This Mills novel won’t appeal to everyone – you really need to get and sympathise with the particular brand of nerdiness that Mills uses to illustrate this social satire. I’m guessing that’s why Tim Martin in the Telegraph only gave it 1 star, whereas Toby Litt seemed to enjoy it in the Guardian. Me? I enjoyed it, but then, I have my own record-nerd credentials…
I used to go to record fairs, searching out those rare singles with the different bonus tracks etc.. Ours was a completist household, although dominated by lps rather than singles, but being early adopters, we took to cds with relish and eventually sold off almost all the vinyl. I had a good ear for ‘soundstaging’ – that elusive audiophile quality in a recording that gave a depth of field – essential when buying top-end kit to play records on. But I did ‘listen’ to records differently compared with my ex. For me, experiencing music is always about melody, harmony and musicianship – that comes from years of playing piano and violin. So lyrics, sleevenotes and recording details came in second place, whereas my ex, a non-musician, could always remember lyrics and would air-drum/guitar. (OK, occasionally, I’d play keyboards on my knee, or an air-violin too!) But we did also sit and seriously listen, just like Mills’ blokes – without multi-tasking!
Now, it’s all changed. Vinyl is making a limited comeback, but iTunes and then streaming have largely done away with sound quality of recordings, requiring huge amounts of compression so the data doesn’t use up all the memory in the world. When I listen, it’s on the radio or laptop, played through my bluetooth speaker or ‘phones if I can be bothered. I still appreciate harmony, melody and musician ship but don’t get the audiophile experience any more, I’ll be singing along while doing my emails, or reading etc.
The humour in The Forensic Record Society is also often more hidden than usual. There are plenty of up-front jokes, but if you’re not an afficionado of rock and pop music from the 1960s through to the 1990s, you ‘ll miss some of them, (Mills is now in his early 60s, so the music quoted is anchored back then). Mills’ blokes discuss music only in song titles – they’re all real song titles too (I’m pretty sure of this), but no artists are ever mentioned. This is how his bloke record-nerds speak. This is where I did get annoyed with the novel. It was just about OK for me, I knew perhaps 80-90% of the songs referred to – but I can imagine that this will turn others off .
To make it worse, Bloomsbury have missed out on a potential marketing triumph. Imagine, if all the songs were available as Spotify playlists – you could listen as you read. Brilliant! But nope, for your £18.99, you don’t even get an index of tracks listed with artists etc, just the permissions for the handful quoted. I was disappointed in this missed opportunity.
This is far from being Mills’ best novel, yet it has some great ideas in it, (the Confessional Records Society is a brilliant concept when you get to discover it, for instance). It certainly deserves more than one star, but its just too self-reverential in its record-nerdiness and too dead-pan to recommend fully, and too expensive in hardback! (6.5/10 )
Source: I bought this from an independent bookshop!
Magnus Mills, The Forensic Records Society (Bloomsbury, Apr 2017) Hardback, 192 pages.