If We Were Villains by M. L. Rio is a thrilling story involving murder, betrayal, and Shakespeare. The novel concerns the lives of seven theater majors, including the main character Oliver Marks, in a murder mystery at the fictional Dellecher Shakespeare conservatory. Oliver Marks serves 10 years in jail, for a murder he may or may not have committed, and Detective Colbourne is determined to find out the truth before he retires. The seven students normally play the same roles offstage as onstage: the villain, hero, tyrant, temptress, ingenue, and the extra. Except when the casting changes during their performance of Julius Cesar. Grudges and jealousies arise, and one of them is found dead. The students now have to act off stage too, to the police, each other, and themselves, as they try to convince everyone they are blameless.
Even though I’ve always struggled with Shakespeare, the excerpts inside the novel really make the story. Characters quote lines to each other in day-to-day conversation, which sounds weird, but it actually helps you understand the characters better. They speak the lines simply enough that I can understand them without having to look anything up, which never happens when reading Shakespeare. The lines always pertain to what situation the character is in, and it even shows some insight to the problem that the author struggles to show through descriptions. The novel made me even more interested in Shakespeare. I already knew some plays, like Macbeth and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and when a character quoted a line from something I recognized, it was exciting. But when a character quoted something I didn’t know, or the students performed something I had never heard of, like King Lear, I was tempted to look it up. The novel mixes the murder mystery and subplots among Shakespeare stories to the point where the entire novel feels like a new Shakespeare play.
The diamond in the rough of this story is in the characters. While the imagery is beautiful and the plot is suspenseful, the characters in the novel are really what made this story so good. Oliver, the main character, is a bit of a wallflower, with conflicting feelings for more than one of the other students. Filippa is loyal and cares about her friends. Richard is hot headed and aggressive. James is helpful and humble. Meredith is confident and a strong female character. Wren is shy, but smart and creative. Alexander is quick-witted and sarcastic, mostly there for comic relief (and he was my favorite). I related to each character differently, which made them more likable, even the ones the readers aren’t supposed to like.
This novel is captivating. I was sleeping or driving. It was sophisticated and beautifully written, and I couldn’t put it down. I read the whole novel in two days. From the first page, I felt like I was right alongside Oliver. When the murder happened, I felt like I was the one witnessing it, not reading about it. For anyone looking for a fantastic murder mystery novel, with incredible characters and suspense, this is the right book.