“Much like Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, M. L. Rio’s sparkling debut is a richly layered story of love, friendship, and obsession...will keep you riveted through its final, electrifying moments.”
—Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney, New York Times bestselling author of The Nest
"Nerdily (and winningly) in love with Shakespeare…Readable, smart.”
—New York Times Book Review
On the day Oliver Marks is released from jail, the man who put him there is waiting at the door. Detective Colborne wants to know the truth, and after ten years, Oliver is finally ready to tell it.
A decade ago: Oliver is one of seven young Shakespearean actors at Dellecher Classical Conservatory, a place of keen ambition and fierce competition. In this secluded world of firelight and leather-bound books, Oliver and his friends play the same roles onstage and off: hero, villain, tyrant, temptress, ingénue, extras.
But in their fourth and final year, good-natured rivalries turn ugly, and on opening night real violence invades the students’ world of make-believe. In the morning, the fourth-years find themselves facing their very own tragedy, and their greatest acting challenge yet: convincing the police, each other, and themselves that they are innocent.
If We Were Villains was named one of Bustle's Best Thriller Novels of the Year, and Mystery Scene says, "A well-written and gripping ode to the stage...A fascinating, unorthodox take on rivalry, friendship, and truth."
The premise of Rio's debut novel is intriguing: it's a murder mystery set at a Illinois college specializing in Shakespeare studies, led by a man with the coincidentally appropriate name of Holinshed. The story follows a group of college students' passions, jealousies, and insecurities, which, over time, escalate to murder. Rio makes effective use of her framing device a prologue set in 2007 introduces one of the students, Oliver Marks, who is about to be released on parole from prison after a decade behind bars for murder. The homicide detective who handled the case, Joseph Colborne, is about to retire from the force and attempts to convince Oliver to finally come clean about what really happened by promising him that anything he reveals will be off the record. Flashbacks disclose what led up to the death of one of the students in 1997 and the tensions Oliver observed among his classmates before and after. Though the plot twists may not surprise some readers, this is a solid mystery that keeps the pages turning.
Grating at first (I went to a performing arts college and while I got my BFA in Film, I acted a lot (I even did Shakespeare!) and was very involved with our theater department and can assure all of you that NOBODY, not even pretentious theater kids, actually talks like these characters do) but the plot and chemistry of the characters and secondhand rush of putting on performances, and sinking your teeth into a new role really makes up for some of the cringey dialogue. I find Meredith to be the most interesting character to me and I wish we knew more about Richard and why he went from pretentious older brother figure to full blown abusive tyrant but all in all, this was truly great and I plan on reading it again soon.
Shoutout to two truly inspired stagings of Shakespeare: Rio’s visions for Macbeth and King Lear sound phenomenal and I’d happily watch either in real life.
Only read if you are mentally stable
This is a masterpiece. Literally can’t say more I just finished it and I am in shock so much that I feel like a have a empty hole in my gut. I am also balling. ANYWAYS, this book is amazing in every way and I’m going to now not sleep for the next two weeks due to the now permanent hole in my heart😝
If you like mysteries, drop what you’re doing and read this. I couldn’t put it down, it kept me enthralled until I finished.