57 pages 1 hour read

M. L. Rio

If We Were Villains

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2017

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Summary and Study Guide


If We Were Villains, the debut novel of actor and author M.L. Rio, was published in 2017. A work in the dark academia genre, the campus novel is part murder mystery and part dramatic tragedy. Rio draws on her training as an actor to create the world of an elite drama school ripped apart by a disaster of Shakespearean proportions. The plot follows a group of seven acting students whose friendship comes undone after they are cast outside of their usual roles. This ends in the mysterious death of Richard, one of the friends. Oliver, the novel’s narrator, confessed to murdering Richard and was sentenced to 10 years in prison; however, the detective responsible for the case, Colborne, never fully believed Oliver’s confession. The question of who killed Richard and why adds suspense as Oliver finally tells Colborne the true story.

Rio structures the novel as a five-act play, titling the chapters as scenes. The characters quote Shakespeare to each other and embody his characters. Shakespearean themes such as love, jealousy, ambition, and murder abound as the characters blur the line between dramatic text and reality. On its publication, the novel was praised for its suspenseful atmosphere and pacy plot; it has since become an international bestseller, published in six languages. This guide follows the Titan Books, London, 2017 edition. All quotes from Shakespeare’s plays are in italics and are accompanied by citations.

Outside of writing, M.L. Rio has worked in both academia and theatre. She gained her master’s in Shakespeare studies from King’s College London and Shakespeare’s Globe and is currently studying for her PhD in early modern English literature at the University of Maryland. She lives in Washington, D.C.

Content Warning: If We Were Villains contains depictions of drug use, domestic abuse, and suicide, which are referenced in this guide.

Plot Summary

Oliver Marks, age 31, is finishing up a 10-year jail term for the murder of his former drama-school classmate, Richard Stirling. Despite Oliver’s confession, Detective Colborne, the lead investigator on the case, has always suspected Oliver was not behind the murder. He visits Oliver in jail one last time, asking him to tell him the truth now that Colborne is set to retire from the force. Oliver agrees to narrate his story after he is released from prison. Oliver’s narration recounts the period between 1997 and 1998, the last year of drama school at Dellecher, an elite conservatory which only teaches Shakespeare.

Oliver and his six friends—Richard, Meredith, Filipa, Alexander, Wren, and James—are a tightknit group of fine actors. After four years of immersing themselves in Shakespeare’s various plays, they embody the very stereotypes in which they are cast on stage. Tall, broad Richard is the king and tyrant, beautiful Meredith the temptress, James the hero, and Oliver the hero’s best friend or sidekick. However, a twist in this familiar casting unsettles the power dynamic of the group.

For Macbeth, the annual Halloween play, Richard is relegated to the role of a spirit when James is cast as Macbeth. This greatly upsets the ambitious Richard, who grows violent and resentful. Parallel to the Macbeth rehearsals, the friends practice Julius Caesar, where Richard has been cast in the titular role. Richard’s behavior during Caesar practice turns increasingly boorish. After the Macbeth performance, Richard nearly drowns James though he claims innocence. The others rescue James and chide Richard but agree to keep the incident a secret from their teachers.

Though Richard apologizes, his behavior worsens. Oliver grows protective of Meredith, Richard’s girlfriend, even as he refuses to acknowledge his love for James. When Alexander learns of Richard’s violence, he, James, and Oliver decide to attack him on stage during a show of Caesar. The show is a huge hit. At the cast party afterwards, Richard attacks Meredith, jealous of her flirting with another boy. Oliver drags Meredith away, and they make love in her room, ignoring the infuriated Richard who eventually storms off into the woods with a bottle of alcohol. James goes after him on Wren’s request; in a scuffle Richard instigates, James hits Richard in the head with a boat hook. Richard falls into the lake. Assuming him dead, James heads back to the castle. Filipa sees his bloodstained clothes, realizes what he has done, and keeps it a secret.

The next morning, the friends discover Richard, barely alive in the water. James tries to save him, but the friends agree to let Richard die since if he lives, he may be even more vicious towards them. During the murder investigation, the friends agree to say they found Richard already dead in the water. Though Colborne initially rules the death to be accidental, he suspects there is more to the case. Meanwhile, a crisis at home means Oliver can no longer afford tuition at Dellecher. The faculty allow him to clean the castle as a work-study scholarship, which he does in secret, embarrassed.

After Thanksgiving, the group begins preparing scenes for Romeo and Juliet for the annual Christmas masque. James is Romeo and Oliver is cast as Benvolio, the hero’s friend. James’s behavior turns secretive. He often disappears from the castle for long stretches, tormented by his guilt. Oliver and Meredith begin to date, much to the disapproval of students from other years. The Romeo and Juliet masque is a success, and the school’s attention is now drawn to the spring production, King Lear. James is cast as the play’s antagonist, Edmund, while Oliver plays his half-brother, the noble Edgar. James begins to embody Edmund’s anger, often turning aggressive against Oliver during practice. Oliver discovers a burnt piece of bloody fabric in a fireplace and hides it, suspecting this is evidence linked with Richard’s death. Oliver begins to think the death may have been caused by someone in their group.

The group continues to fall apart, suffering under their trauma and the pressure of the curriculum. Eventually, Meredith realizes that James may be responsible for Richard’s death and conveys her suspicions to Colborne. Oliver discovers the bloody boat hook hidden in James’s mattress. He confronts James, and James confesses to the crime. During a show of Romeo and Juliet, Colborne comes to arrest James, but Oliver, driven by his love for James, takes the fall. Meredith refuses to testify in his trial, and Oliver is sentenced to prison.

In the present, Oliver learns that James died of suicide four years ago. Distraught, he visits Meredith, now a famous TV actor, and begins living with her. One day, Filipa brings him two notes found in James’s car near the lake in which he died by suicide. One is a passage from Pericles addressed to Oliver. Oliver realizes the passage is code that James is asking him for help. He looks up James’s death and discovers his body was never found. The novel ends on the tantalizing suggestion that James may yet be alive.