The Forensic Records Society by Magnus Mills
The Forensic Records Society begins promptly with the formation of its titular organization, a small group of audiophiles who listen to music intently in the back room of an unremarkable England pub. The group derives purpose from its quirky modus operandi; in order to listen to music completely and effectively, no comments or judgements are allowed. This approach comes with its pros and cons, and the strict protocol maintained by the group’s manager prompts members with differing philosophies to splinter off into their own rival societies which threaten the original group’s prominence. Without descending into an indulgent clash of music nerd debates, Magnus Mills’ slim ninth novel instead pleases with its parable-esque feel and deliberately religious undertones.
It would be easy to read this book’s back jacket and assume the story to be laden with debates of music fan nerdery, the likes of which have already been tackled effectively and memorably in the novels of Nick Hornby. But in fact, the deliberate omission of these squabbles is the organization’s entire purpose. In the FRS, you don’t call attention to that one guitar lick you love—you just soak it in. You don’t recount the story of how that one song was playing when you lost your virginity. All such meditations take place only inwardly, if at all.
Taking it a step further, author Magnus Mills largely omits all references to song artists. As readers, we are privy to the song titles that each club member contributes to the weekly meetings’ playlists, but this is one of few ways we can glimpse into characters’ identities. This novel does not built a rich tapestry of people and locations. A majority of the story’s proceedings take place in the aforementioned pub, and most participants are identified by their first name, a recognizable physical characteristic, and their preferred method of consuming music. We see next to nothing of these members’ lives outside the weekly meetings; the most egregious example occurs when the narrator declares “…there was nothing I could do except wait patiently for [the Monday meeting] to come around.” It is through this deliberately narrow scope that the story assumes the feel of a slightly surreal, Paulo Coelho-esque parable.
Appropriately, as things progress, Mills employs increasingly deliberate religious undertones. The schisms of musical ideology and the rival factions that develop overtly suggest as much. This is a fun layer, and it’s entirely appropriate. After all, don’t music nerds derive life-steering meaning from the musical creations they worship? Do they debate endlessly about ways to analyze lyrics, instrumental choices and narrative themes? Is the spirit of the music something they carry every day, helping them to forge through troubling times? Absolutely. While Mills doesn’t use this narrative arc to say anything particularly new or bold on the topic of theology, it nevertheless adds a relevant and playful layer to this curious tale.
Despite its short length, The Forensic Records Society is meant for frequent readers. It doesn’t have a wealth of standalone merit, and its somewhat open-ended conclusion may not satisfy audiences looking for a tight, clean finish. But what this novel aims to do it does well. It offers a thoughtful meditation on what it means to be a music fan, the various approaches employed in doing so, and a celebration of one’s free will to worship as you choose, despite the societal differences within your own neighborhood and beyond. The one or two days you spend reading this book won’t change your life, but will provide a playful and memorable experience that your inner fan will appreciate.