About the Book
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…
Format: Paperback (432 pages) Publisher: Titan Books
Publication date: 13th June 2017 Genre: Crime
Find If We Were Villains on Goodreads
Disclosure: If you buy a book via the above link, I may earn a commission from Bookshop.org, whose fees support independent bookshops
The author is a devotee of Shakespeare and this certainly comes across in the book. For instance its title is a quote from King Lear. Not only do the fourth year drama students at Dellecher Classical Conservatory study and perform only the works of Shakespeare but the book is peppered with references to and quotations from the Bard’s plays. Indeed the students frequently converse in Shakespeare-like quotations. The book’s structure also mimics a theatrical format being divided into acts and scenes, each act starting with a prologue.
All the characters have flaws although Richard – ‘pure power, six foot three and carved from concrete’ – seems set up from the beginning as the villain of the piece. There’s an interesting scene in which the students are forced by one of the course tutors to declare their strengths and weaknesses with unflinching honesty.
As the book progresses, the bonds of friendship become increasingly tested and are eventually broken altogether on one momentous night that is no A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The storyline incorporates all the elements of a Shakespearean tragedy: passion, ambition, duplicity, betrayal, revenge, even madness. ‘Actors are by nature volatile – alchemic creatures composed of incendiary elements, emotion and ego and envy. Heat them up, stir them together, and sometimes you get gold. Sometimes disaster.’ The modern world intrudes occasionally in the form of drink and drug fuelled parties that last well into the early hours.
Although I enjoyed If We Were Villains, by Act V I was beginning to experience a bit of Shakespeare overload which may have contributed to the sense that the book lacked pace. The obvious comparison is with Donna Tartt’s The Secret History but the enclosed and rather claustrophobic nature of Dellecher Classical Conservatory – described at one point as ‘less academic institution than cult’ – also reminded me a little of Caldonbrae Hall, the boarding school in Madam by Phoebe Wynne.
In three words: Atmospheric, intricate, dramatic
Try something similar: New Boy by Tracy Chevalier
About the Author
M. L. Rio was born in Miami and has just competed her MA in Shakespeare Studies at King’s College London. In 2016 she won a contest to stay in Hamlet’s Castle at Elsinore for the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, where she was the first person to sleep in the castle in over 100 years. If We Were Villains is her debut novel.