September 1997: Oliver Marks is finishing his fourth and final year at Dellecher Classical Conservatory in Broadwater, Illinois. After surviving the yearly cuts to his acting program as students fail to meet expectations, it feels like the world is laid at his feet. Everything is ahead of him. This year, it seems, anything can happen.
It will take months for Oliver to realize how right he is.
Ten years later Oliver is finishing the final days of his decade-long prison sentence when the man who arrested him arrives with a surprising ask. Detective Colborne is retiring, leaving his life with the police behind. But he wants answers first. He wants to know what happened at Dellecher all those years ago and, this time, he wants to know the truth.
Returning to the scene of the crime–of so many smaller crimes, if he’s being honest–Oliver sets the scene for Colborne as he remembers that final year with the players in this tale: Richard the tyrant, Alex the villain, James the hero, Wren the ingenue, Meredith the temptress, and Filippa–the one everyone always forgets, always to their disadvantage. And then there’s Oliver, never quite sure where he fits on stage or off.
After three years of settling into roles they seem to know by heart, everything changes during their final year. One of the seven is dead. More than one of them is guilty. One will take the blame. And, ten years later, Oliver will finally tell the truth in If We Were Villains (2017) by M. L. Rio.
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Rio’s debut novel is part atmospheric thriller, part suspenseful mystery all steeped in Shakespeare and the dangerous energy that can make relationships both exhilarating and toxic.
Structured as a play, the story unfolds over five acts as Oliver narrates key scenes with prologues before each act where he further sets the scene for Colborne. This character driven story is dynamite building slowly to an explosive and often surprising conclusion enhanced by Rio’s excellent foreshadowing and parallels to Shakespearean tragedies.
While If We Were Villains keeps a tight focus on Oliver and his fellow theater students, not all characters are created equal. Oliver and James in particular are so nuanced and so authentically flawed that the other characters often seem flat in comparison as they play to type (this may in part be due to Oliver’s own lens as narrator but still felt like something that could be explored more). Meredith and Wren are especially are disappointingly lacking in depth returning, again and again, to the same concerns and the same shortcomings while Filippa remains, in many ways, a mystery herself.
Set in 1997 and 2007, If We Were Villains is surprisingly hesitant to consider sexuality beyond binaries. While some characters are, understandably, hesitant to let themselves be labeled the novel as a whole refuses to even consider the possibility of both bisexuality and pansexuality as queer identities. This is not damaging to the story but it is erasure worth considering when deciding whether or not to consider this title.
If We Were Villains is a tense, thoughtfully executed story of love, obsession, and missed chances. Perfect for readers fascinated by all-consuming relationships, drama in the classic sense, and of course Shakespeare in every sense. Highly recommended.
Possible Pairings: Trust Exercise by Susan Choi, Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff, The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton, Vicious by V. E. Schwab, Macbeth by William Shakespeare, King Lear by William Shakespeare, The Secret History by Donna Tartt, Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas