Book #49

If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio

Oliver Marks has just served ten years for a murder he may or may not have committed. On the day of his release, he is greeted by the detective who put him in prison. Detective Colborne is retiring, and he wants to know what really happened a decade before.

As a young actor at an elite conservatory, Oliver noticed that his talented classmates seem to play the same characters onstage and off – villain, hero, temptress – though he was always a supporting role. But when the teachers change the casting, a good-natured rivalry turns ugly, and the plays spill dangerously over into real life.

When tragedy strikes, one of the seven friends is found dead. The rest face their greatest acting challenge yet: convincing the police, and themselves, that they are blameless.

Reading the description of this novel would immediately lead you to assume it’s a mystery novel, or even a thriller. Seven friends at a prestigious arts school, one is murdered, and we seek out the killer. It’s a pretty standard mystery formula, and I really thought that was what I was throwing myself into. Instead, I found myself within a mystery story which is written unlike any mystery story I’ve ever experienced. We don’t barge through the plot, red herrings flying in our wake, police swarming the scenes, suspicious characters lurking amongst the commas. Instead, Rio gives us something of a study into character, into guilt, and into the conundrums strong relationships can suggest.

Rio’s prose is very rich, and very poetic. The characters’ Shakespeare obsession bleeds into their dialogue, even when offstage. Quips, sweet nothings, solutions, and even threats, are all delivered in the bard’s tongue throughout their daily conversations. Although I did find this tiresome to a degree, it’s important to note that Rio’s positioning of these was entirely perfect; she finds a Shakespearean line to fit so accurately into each conversation that I was quite amazed.

The mystery itself unravels in a meandering way. There’s no fast pace here; everything and everyone is cruelly analysed and explored. Rio allows us to understand each of the six friends, their motivations, and their possible guilt. The final chapters land like a punch to the sternum, so cleverly thrown, so expertly pitched.

There was a lot here, however, which turned this into a bit of a slog for me. I appreciate what Rio’s vision was, but it wasn’t something I was destined to enjoy. I’d call myself a Shakespeare lover, but the constant depictions of the characters on stage acting in his plays took up too much time and space, and I felt as though both plot and characterisation were sacrificed in favour of these scenes. There are some really outstanding moments, but I felt I had to sift through a lot of debris to get to them.

I was also a bit disappointed in the way some things were dealt with, one of which was Meredith’s character. We’re continually reminded how gorgeous she is, and there’s nothing much else to report. There’s even a section where she comments on how no one can see past her beauty, yet Rio doesn’t show us anything else about her which would allow us to do that. In addition, the section where we discover Oliver’s sister is suffering with an eating disorder was a complete mess, and I won’t say anything further than that.

A beautifully written exploration of theatre, relationships, and guilt; something to read if you’re a true theatre kid or Shakespeare freak. If you’re looking for a good mystery novel, keep looking.