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  • Nikita Binetti

Book Review: If We Were Villains by M. L. Rio

“Hamlet stirred in my memory. There’s a special providence, he says, in the fall of a sparrow.” (p. 181)

I’m not usually one to read murder mysteries. I sometimes find that a heavy reliance on the development of an intricate and unravelling plot can lead to the underdevelopment of characters. Which is, of course, understandable and not inherently bad, but personally, the connection that I develop with the people who drive a story is most often linked with my overall enjoyment of the novel. This is why I really enjoyed the way that these two aspects were balanced in If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio.

Taking place at a prestigious arts college, the characters are not just suspects—they’re actors, young adults, flawed human beings and hopeless romantics. There is a personal depth to the characters and the relations between them, which adds an extra element of emotional weight to the death that they witness, and the grief they experience from it.

The prologue introduces our main character and narrator Oliver, who is nearing the end of a ten-year prison sentence. Prompted by the retiring officer who convicted him, Oliver decides to recount the events that led to his arrest, suggesting that, as is so often the case in murder mystery novels, there is more to the story than meets the eye; “secrets carry weight, like lead,” (p.11).

Despite the gritty start, the first third of the story actually feels somewhat like a coming-of-age narrative, wherein a group of seven unique, artsy students who relish in their rivalries are working towards their final performances before graduation at the end of the year. It was a strong way to introduce the ensemble of characters, and define their roles in the events to come. Seeing the characters interact behind stage, in between classes, and during rehearsals and performances allows you to get an intimate sense of who these people are. Their personalities are explored through their interactions between each other, and also the characters that they play on stage.

I should probably mention now that there is a lot of Shakespeare in this novel, to an almost pretentious degree. In some cases it’s used almost in replacement of imagery, and even Oliver is aware that his constant quoting of the 18th century playwright is… strange to say the least. “The gallows does well. But how does it well? It does well to those that do ill,” I reply, determined to deserve his annoyance,” (p.10). I found that the use of Shakespearean archetypes to inform the characterisation and decisions of modern-day characters was quite interesting and engaging, but even I grew tired of the constant switching between casual dialogue and quotes in iambic pentameter. If you are not a fan of Shakespeare’s plays, or theatre in general for that matter, then I’m not too sure how thrilled you’ll be, as they both play an integral role in the characters and the plot.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, I’d like to talk about perhaps the most engaging parts of the novel (for me at least), which was the relationship between Oliver and James. Best friends and roommates since starting their studies, their bond was one that captured me from the start. Each time the the two were alone together, their interactions had a deep sincerity, accompanied by the kind of quick-witted back and forth banter that is both entertaining and endearing to see in well-written relationships:

“He folded his comforter back and asked, “Am I still Brutus?”

“No.” I tossed a sock at him. “You’re Antony. For once I get to be the lead.” (p.19)

The first half of the book provides a solid foundation for this relationship to be explored in the latter half, through the tension and conflicts that the plot provides. Watching them navigate the strains that the murder and investigation puts on their friendship was one of the things that kept me so enthralled with this novel.

I also enjoyed the experience of having the murder investigation unravel through the eyes of someone other than the detective. Oliver is often unreliable in his narration, missing details and using his emotions towards other characters to inform his descriptions of them and their actions. He’s often oblivious to the characters around him and their struggles, or, at the very least, misunderstanding of them. This allows for quite a lot of back and forth in terms of suspicions about who could have committed the murder, both from characters in the book and from the reader, “‘Sorry,’ she said, ‘what motive do I have to kill my boyfriend?’” (page 188). There is no heavy-handed red herring to prompt readers to suspect one person so that they can be surprised by the twist at the end. This made the reveal itself quite impactful, because at some point during the story I had suspected each person in the group at least once. This is achieved because our narrator, while playing an active role in the overarching story, actually plays quite a passive role in terms of the murder plot. It’s an interesting dynamic.

For all its positives, the book did have its share of negatives. Oliver’s character tended to lean to the pretentious side at times, and his decision-making skills left something to be desired. There were several Oliver-induced eye rolls while reading, but hey, all characters have got to have some flaws. There was also an interesting and kind of clumsy navigation between the time of the murder, and ten years after when Oliver is in prison. It’s not clumsy in that it’s confusing what timeline you’re in, rather in that the narrative feels disjointed when it’s separated by ten pages for Oliver and Coulson to talk about what we had just read. While a device that was necessary at times, the back and forth between each act grew tiresome.

Despite this, If We Were Villains was incredibly enjoyable, and definitely a must-read if you like murder mysteries, theatre, Shakespeare, or even just interesting casts of characters. It provided the deep and immersive development of character that I sometimes find lacking in murder mysteries, while staying true to the need for an intricate plot. It also provided a conclusion that left me simultaneously satisfied and wanting more, which I find is sometimes the best way to end a story.

Content Warnings

Graphic depiction of death, drug use, struggle with mental health

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