If We Were Villains is a character study turned twisted thriller; a classic whodunnit plot transposed into the strange, elusive and elitist world of art school. M.L. Rio expertly captures this microcosm of an exclusive theatre college, somehow skilfully drawing readers into a world largely alien to any outside of the profession.
The story, told through the eyes of the charming and kind-hearted Oliver, jumps easily from 1997 to present day as our main character slowly unravels a mystery that has baffled police for over a decade. Oliver, arrested in the 90’s for a murder he may or may not have committed, re-visits his old college (and the scene of the crime) ten years after the fact, with the detective – and to some degree, old friend – who first arrested him.
We the readers are thus dragged headlong into the life of Oliver Marks and his six classmates; a world where archaic grandeur and Shakespearean literature co-exists with frat-parties, beer kegs and substance-abuse. A chaotic world of blurred lines between bitter rivalry, love, lust and unfaltering kinship.
On the surface Rio’s character ensemble appears woefully stereotypical: from the gorgeous red-headed bombshell, the testosterone-driven jock to the laid-back stoner, and the list goes on; if you’ve watched any teenage college drama then you’ll be able to tick off the familiar cast. Yet, this is certainly intentional. Even the character’s themselves bicker frequently throughout the book that their teachers (Fredrick and Gwendolyn) ‘type-cast’ them in the same role every year. Rio ingeniously plays with this concept of type-casting throughout the novel. Certain character’s embrace the pigeonhole they find themselves in – to the point where the line between who they are playing and who they actually are becomes near indistinguishable – while others, including our tragic hero Oliver, desperately seek to rid themselves of these labels: and the result for each is both fascinating and calamitous.
“I need language to live, like food – lexemes and morphemes and morsels of meaning nourish me with the knowledge that, yes, there is a word for this. Someone else had felt it before.”
Laid out in (of course) five acts to mirror the structure of the Shakespearean tragedy, If We Were Villains is perhaps the most intelligent thriller I’ve read in a long time. For some, the excerpts of Shakespearean prose interjected amongst ‘every-day’ conversation may feel jilted, however peel back the surface of these exchanges and you’ll unravel deeper insight into each of the characters, and their motivations. If you’re not an avid reader of Shakespeare, Rio will make you want to dust off those secondary-school textbooks and re-read your old essays so that you can better understand the fascinating plot and it’s multidimensional cast.
From the script-like layout of some exchanges, to the story being split into ‘scenes’ rather than chapters – If We Were Villains is as complex and multi-layered as it is thrilling and unexpected. If there is one thriller you read this year, make this it.