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Review: If We Were Villains

Updated: Dec 18, 2023

3/5 stars

A murder mystery for fans of Shakespeare! It's a very dramatic, literary, theatrical thriller.

I don't think it's absolutely necessary for you to have a working knowledge of Shakespearean plays, but it certainly helps. Either way, the book is heavy on the Shakespeare quotes, so... you have to be ok with that.

The seven main characters - 4 guys, 3 girls - are all theatre nerds at a preppy, elite arts college (kind of Dead Poet's Society-esque, in the "dark, underbelly of academia" sense), whose entire lives revolve around the Shakespeare plays they perform each year.

They go to class, rehearse, and lounge around their dorm, affectionately called "The Castle," discussing their roles, and bombarding each other with quotes from the plays. I'll admit that at the beginning of the book, I thought, "oh boy, this is going to be so pretentious." But Rio actually does a great job of incorporating the quotes so that they provide context, and as the plot moves forward, you learn more and more about the characters themselves through the roles they play and the quotes they choose.

Ten years on, we know that one of the group of actor friends, Oliver, has served time in prison for a murder that happened back in school. Upon his release, he's met by Detective Colborne, the man who investigated the murder. Colborne wants to know - what actually happened all those years ago? What's the truth about the murder? Because he's certain that all of them were keeping secrets.

The narrative then hops back and forth between Oliver's school years, and present-day, telling a story of deep friendship, obsession, deception, and making the ultimate sacrifice for the people you love... or, anyway, the people you love to hate.

I really enjoyed this book, and would have given it 4/5 stars if not for the fact that, in the end, I didn't feel completely satisfied with the justification for some of the characters' actions. In a very theatrical way, I want to ask them, "So what's your motivation? I need to FEEL it. Show me WHY you did what you did!" There's a vague LGBTQ love story that falls under this category. While I get that part of the point here is that it's obscure, I still found it confusing, and I wish it had been better developed.

Still, I love a good murder mystery, which this is. And I love Shakespeare, too.

“This is the excellent foppery of the world, that, when we are sick in fortune—often the surfeit of our own behavior—we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars: as if we were villains on necessity; fools by heavenly compulsion; knaves, thieves, and treachers by spherical predominance; drunkards, liars, and adulterers by an enforc’d obedience of planetary influence; and all that we are evil in, by a divine thrusting-on!”

—William Shakespeare, King Lear


UP NEXT: Conjure Women, by Afia Atakora

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