If We Were Villains – M. L. Rio

The plot here revolves around Oliver Marks, sentenced to ten years for the murder of one of his fellow students at a prestigious arts institution, a murder he may or may not have committed. On his release, somehow – and this is the weakest part of the novel – Marks is persuaded to unburden himself, and tell the man who was the policeman who investigated the crime and led to Marks’ incarceration, the whole story.

The color and backdrop is Shakespearean in all its glory, because Marks and his fellow students were thespians, craving success, fame, and fortune on the stage. So, for example, much of the group’s chat is peppered with Shakespearean quotes. What’s worse, from my perspective, is that some of the scenes are – literally – scenes, with the reader forced to wade through line after line of more Shakespearean language. Horrible. It is well done if you are a Shakespearean nut, but otherwise it’s overdone.

On the plus side, the group are well sketched, and the dynamics between them – if not the dialog – are well illustrated, and sharply observed. For example, the shifting of perspectives with the changes in anticipated casting as the group move from play to play, were especially fine, as was the gradual peeling of the onion skin of each character, so we could see what parts of their performance were actually performance, and which were their real character. The life of an elite arts institution seemed authentic, and the storytelling – theatricals aside – was good.

For me, the book was too full of its arty drama world to be fully engaging. I am not a theater fan, and Shakespeare is a torture that should never darken the door of modern educational establishments. So, there were chunks that I might as well not have read. But despite that, I was taken enough by Oliver Marks to want to get to the end. And the end is well worth getting to.

If you like the theater – especially Shakespeare – go for it. You will love it. Otherwise, probably best avoiding.