Every year at this time, as trees come into bud and flowers bloom, middle-aged men (and a few women) sleep overnight on pavements to ensure they don’t miss the year’s crop of Record Store Day releases; April may indeed be the cruellest month if one fails to acquire that limited 12” picture disc of Toto’s ‘Africa’. It is with such dedicated individuals that Magnus Mills’s new novel is concerned, memory, desire and vinyl being the constituent parts not only of Record Store Day on 22 April but also this authentically square book. The Forensic Records Society has been printed to look like a collectable 7” single, complete with die-cut dust jacket resembling a vintage paper sleeve.
For nearly 20 years Mills has been entertaining and occasionally perplexing readers with his enigmatic tales of thwarted expeditions, projects and schemes, stories which may or may not be allegorical. From his debut with the 1999 Booker-nominated The Restraint of Beasts to The Field of the Cloth of Gold, shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize in 2015, Mills has excelled at the comedy of administrative process and mild exasperation. In his novels and short stories, as in life, men (and a few women) sit around in groups debating the right way to do something without ever quite understanding what the others are getting at. In this respect, The Forensic Records Society is classic Mills.
The novel begins with a discussion of exactly which member of The Who yells the words ‘I saw you!’ at the very end of the group’s 1966 single ‘Happy Jack’ — drummer Keith Moon or singer Roger Daltrey:
James gazed at the turntable as it ground to a halt.
‘That’s Keith,’ he said.
‘You certain?’ I asked.
He played the record through for the third time. This was the agreed number of plays, so he then removed it from the turntable and returned it to its sleeve. As he did so he gave the label a cursory glance.
‘Fabulous music,’ he remarked.
A few points are worth noting here. 1. Mills never refers to either The Who or ‘Happy Jack’ by name. 2. James’s remark ‘fabulous music’ is an obscure joke, Fabulous Music being the name of the group’s publishing company printed on the record label. 3. This is in part a novel about dogmatic belief and how it can lead one astray, foreshadowed in the exchange above. 4. The member of The Who shouting ‘I saw you!’ is in fact neither Keith Moon nor Roger Daltrey, but the guitarist Pete Townshend. 5. I have no doubt the author is well aware of all this and that, by pointing it out, I have fallen straight into a trap of his making; see point 3.
The aim of the Forensic Records Society is to meet in the back room of a pub and listen to records properly, three at a time, with solemn respect and without recourse to personal interpretation. Among the group’s founding members it is an article of faith that theirs is the only correct way to listen to records. ‘I remained convinced that my original theory was correct,’ states Mills’s narrator. ‘There were some records that were never heard on planet Earth unless I (or James) happened to be playing them.’
But as the society grows in number, splits and schisms occur, leading to the foundation of rival organisations such as the Confessional Records Society, the Perceptive Records Society and in time, inevitably, the New Forensic Records Society. For once, the issue of whether Mills is writing allegorically seems beyond doubt.
The Forensic Records Society is also, as one might expect, tremendously funny. Mills is one of Britain’s best comic writers, and this is an excellent introduction to his scrupulously amusing world. If you are the sort of man (or woman) who has ever sat around debating why Mark E. Smith clearly sings ‘Plastic Man’ on The Fall’s 1980 record ‘How I Wrote “Elastic Man’’ ’ * — or the sort of woman (or man) who knows someone who does — you will love this book. Buy one on Saturday to go with that Toto single.
*The answer, according to one FRS member? ‘To be controversial,’ of course.