Book Review: The Forensic Records Society - Magnus Mills

The Forensic Records Society - Magnus Mills *****

Such is the beautiful allegorical simplicity of Magnus Mills' writing that there is something comforting and vaguely unsettling about his books at the same time. They are comforting in that Mills has a way of creating worlds - or observing how we create worlds - that operate to a clear set of rules, traditions and behaviours where we think we feel safe and unthreatened. There's a sense of belonging to something meaningful, where we can control the conditions and remain immune from the uncertainties of change. What is unsettling about those situations, whether it be in the workplace, the simple life in the countryside, the satisfaction of traditional craft done well, is that no-one is immune to change. Rather than enjoying simple pleasures, the characters in Mills' novels seem to spend more time trying to combating the incursion of foreign ways of thinking and behaving through complex rules and regulations that end up boxing themselves into a living nightmare.

There is clearly an allegorical side to Mills' writing then, but it never feels forced. It just seems to rise naturally out of a recognition of human behaviour and in particular the nature of the British male. In The Forensic Records Society, for example, it all starts with a simple and harmless male obsession for listening to music. OK, it's not that simple, because even in that description there is detail that can't just be skimmed over in such general and vague terms. James and the narrator (who I would call 'Magnus' only for the fact that his characters usually have more everyman names like Chris, Mike, Dave, Barry and Keith) enjoy listening to records; specifically 7" vinyl singles which they listen to forensically, making no judgements, comments or observations, but taking pride in being discerning lovers of music. They decide one day however to extend their little 'club' and form a 'Forensic Records Society', meeting up every Monday night at 9:00pm in the backroom of their local pub, the Half Moon, where they can share their obsession with other serious like-minded individuals. People like Chris, Mike, Dave, Barry and Keith.

Inevitably, it all gets a bit out of hand. Now, you would think that it surely couldn't get that complicated, but unless the rules are clearly laid out (written in pencil on paper evidently), who knows what liberties might be taken. Before you know it, someone will quote a memorable line out of a song - not necessarily a judgement, comment or observation - someone else will bring in an LP record instead of a single, some of the musical tastes might raise a few eyebrows ...and that's just the thin edge of the wedge. Next thing you know records are getting put into the wrong sleeves, girls start complicating matters with their different (wrong) take on music, and suddenly, you have breakaway groups and rival societies. Who knows where it will all end...?

So, as you might guess - or know already if you've read any of Magnus Mills' wonderful books - that's about as exciting as things get. What is wonderful about The Forensic Records Society - and Mills' other books - is the deadpan manner in which he describes these minor upsets of momentous importance. But in a way, there is something significant in such matters. There is a mixture of regret for the passing of tradition, while at the same time a recognition of how ridiculous such little obsessions can appear to outsiders and non-believers. While it might be good and seemingly harmless to listen 'forensically' listen to songs, in this obsessiveness you can detect a little bit of superiority, a conservatism in their unwillingness to change, a belief in the old ways being best, a wariness of newness and innovation. If something is good, why change it?

All this takes place wholly within the little world of the Forensic Records Society. There's scarcely any real depth of personality or character development and hardly any sense of events taking place in the wider world. Without having to make it explicit however you are of course invited to apply those behaviours to larger real-world situations. It isn't always possible to map an exact parallel as Mills has a delightful turn for the surreal, but there are certainly very recognisable characteristics on display here; a very English sense of reserve, slightly disapproving without wishing to be confrontational, being a stickler for rules and putting ones faith in long-standing traditions, with a mistrust and prickly wariness of outsiders coming in and spoiling things that tends to instill a sense of superiority and inflexibility that is unsuited to the reality of a changing world.

As amusing as these observations are, there is something inevitably a little bit Kafkaesque about the deadpan comic absurdity that really does touch on some deep-rooted behaviours and attitudes in a slightly sinister way. The Forensic Records Society might just listen to records and nothing more - what could be more simple and harmless than that? - but mixed in with it all are vague sentiments of guilt, melancholy and fear. If I can point to one little incident that captures a sense of what Mills is capable of, it's the little fact that no-one can account for where the time goes in the two hours between 9 and 11 on a Monday night. Reading Magnus Mills is a little bit like that. Not only do you not see the time passing - and truly, once you've started a Mills book the time flies past - and you don't EVER want to leave that comforting world where everything makes sense until suddenly and rather worryingly it doesn't. Any further comments, observations and judgements are superfluous. Read forensically.

The Forensic Records Society by Magnus Mills is published by Bloomsbury and is out in paperback on the 5th April 2018.

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