If We Were Villains

A Novel

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Trade Paperback

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“Much like Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, M. L. Rio’s sparkling debut is a richly layered story of love, friendship, and obsession…will keep you riveted through its final, electrifying moments.”
–Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney, New York Times bestselling author of The Nest

“Nerdily (and winningly) in love with Shakespeare…Readable, smart.”
New York Times Book Review

On the day Oliver Marks is released from jail, the man who put him there is waiting at the door. Detective Colborne wants to know the truth, and after ten years, Oliver is finally ready to tell it.

A decade ago: Oliver is one of seven young Shakespearean actors at Dellecher Classical Conservatory, a place of keen ambition and fierce competition. In this secluded world of firelight and leather-bound books, Oliver and his friends play the same roles onstage and off: hero, villain, tyrant, temptress, ingénue, extras.

But in their fourth and final year, good-natured rivalries turn ugly, and on opening night real violence invades the students’ world of make-believe. In the morning, the fourth-years find themselves facing their very own tragedy, and their greatest acting challenge yet: convincing the police, each other, and themselves that they are innocent.

If We Were Villains was named one of Bustle’s Best Thriller Novels of the Year, and Mystery Scene says, “A well-written and gripping ode to the stage…A fascinating, unorthodox take on rivalry, friendship, and truth.”



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I sit with my wrists cuffed to the table and I think, But that I am forbid / To tell the secrets of my prison-house, / I could a tale unfold whose lightest word / Would harrow up thy soul. The guard stands by the door, watching me, like he’s waiting for something to happen.

Enter Joseph Colborne. He is a graying man now, almost fifty. It’s a surprise, every few weeks, to see how much he’s aged—and he’s aged a little more, every few weeks, for ten years. He sits across from me, folds his hands, and says, “Oliver.”


“Heard the parole hearing went your way. Congratulations.”

“I’d thank you if I thought you meant it.”

“You know I don’t think you belong in here.”

“That doesn’t mean you think I’m innocent.”

“No.” He sighs, checks his watch—the same one he’s worn since we met—as if I’m boring him.

“So why are you here?” I ask. “Same fortnightly reason?”

His eyebrows make a flat black line. “You would say fucking ‘fortnight.’”

“You can take the boy out of the theatre, or something like that.”

He shakes his head, simultaneously amused and annoyed.

“Well?” I say.

“Well what?”

The gallows does well. But how does it well? It does well to those that do ill,” I reply, determined to deserve his annoyance. “Why are you here? You should know by now I’m not going to tell you anything.”

“Actually,” he says, “this time I think I might be able to change your mind.”

I sit up straighter in my chair. “How?”

“I’m leaving the force. Sold out, took a job in private security. Got my kids’ education to think about.”

For a moment I simply stare at him. Colborne, I always imagined, would have to be put down like a savage old dog before he’d leave the chief’s office.

“How’s that supposed to persuade me?” I ask.

“Anything you say will be strictly off the record.”

“Then why bother?”

He sighs again and all the lines on his face deepen. “Oliver, I don’t care about doling out punishment, not anymore. Someone served the time, and we rarely get that much satisfaction in our line of work. But I don’t want to hang up my hat and waste the next ten years wondering what really happened ten years ago.”

I say nothing at first. I like the idea but don’t trust it. I glance around at the grim cinder blocks, the tiny black video cameras that peer down from every corner, the guard with his jutting underbite. I close my eyes, inhale deeply, and imagine the freshness of Illinois springtime, what it will be like to step outside after gasping on stale prison air for a third of my life.

When I exhale I open my eyes and Colborne is watching me closely.

“I don’t know,” I say. “I’m getting out of here, one way or the other. I don’t want to risk coming back. Seems safer to let sleeping dogs lie.”

His fingers drum restlessly on the table. “Tell me something,” he says. “Do you ever lie in your cell, staring up at the ceiling, wondering how you wound up in here, and you can’t sleep because you can’t stop thinking about that day?”

“Every night,” I say, without sarcasm. “But here’s the difference, Joe. For you it was just one day, then business as usual. For us it was one day, and every single day that came after.” I lean forward on my elbows, so my face is only a few inches from his, so he hears every word when I lower my voice. “It must eat you alive, not knowing. Not knowing who, not knowing how, not knowing why. But you didn’t know him.”

He wears a strange, queasy expression now, as if I’ve become unspeakably ugly and awful to look at. “You’ve kept your secrets all this time,” he says. “It would drive anyone else crazy. Why do it?”

“I wanted to.”

“Do you still?”

My heart feels heavy in my chest. Secrets carry weight, like lead.

I lean back. The guard watches impassively, as if we’re two strangers talking in another language, our conversation distant and insignificant. I think of the others. Once upon a time, us. We did wicked things, but they were necessary, too—or so it seemed. Looking back, years later, I’m not so sure they were, and now I wonder: Could I explain it all to Colborne, the little twists and turns and final exodos? I study his blank open face, the gray eyes winged now by crow’s-feet, but clear and bright as they have always been.

“All right,” I say. “I’ll tell you a story. But you have to understand a few things.”

Colborne is motionless. “I’m listening.”

“First, I’ll start talking after I get out of here, not before. Second, this can’t come back to me or anyone else—no double jeopardy. And last, it’s not an apology.”

I wait for some response from him, a nod or a word, but he only blinks at me, silent and stoic as a sphinx.

“Well, Joe?” I say. “Can you live with that?”

He gives me a cold sliver of a smile. “Yes, I think I can.”



The time: September 1997, my fourth and final year at Dellecher Classical Conservatory. The place: Broadwater, Illinois, a small town of almost no consequence. It had been a warm autumn so far.

Enter the players. There were seven of us then, seven bright young things with wide precious futures ahead of us, though we saw no farther than the books in front of our faces. We were always surrounded by books and words and poetry, all the fierce passions of the world bound in leather and vellum. (I blame this in part for what happened.) The Castle library was an airy octagonal room, walled with bookshelves, crowded with sumptuous old furniture, and kept drowsily warm by a monumental fireplace that burned almost constantly, regardless of the temperature outside. The clock on the mantel struck twelve, and we stirred, one by one, like seven statues coming to life.

’Tis now dead midnight,” Richard said. He sat in the largest armchair like it was a throne, long legs outstretched, feet propped up on the grate. Three years of playing kings and conquerors had taught him to sit that way in every chair, onstage or off-. “And by eight o’clock tomorrow we must be made immortal.” He closed his book with a snap.

Meredith, curled like a cat on one end of the sofa (while I sprawled like a dog on the other), toyed with one strand of her long auburn hair as she asked, “Where are you going?”

Richard: “Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed—

Filippa: “Spare us.”

Richard: “Early morning and all that.”

Alexander: “He says, as if he’s concerned.”

Wren, sitting cross-legged on a cushion by the hearth and oblivious to the others’ bickering, said, “Have you all picked your pieces? I can’t decide.”

Me: “What about Isabella? Your Isabella’s excellent.”

Meredith: “Measure’s a comedy, you fool. We’re auditioning for Caesar.”

“I don’t know why we bother auditioning at all.” Alexander—slumped over the table, wallowing in the darkness at the back of the room—reached for the bottle of Scotch at his elbow. He refilled his glass, took one huge gulp, and grimaced at the rest of us. “I could cast the whole bastarding thing right now.”

“How?” I asked. “I never know where I’ll end up.”

“That’s because they always cast you last,” Richard said, “as whatever happens to be left over.”

“Tsk-tsk,” Meredith said. “Are we Richard tonight or are we Dick?”

“Ignore him, Oliver,” James said. He sat by himself in the farthest corner, loath to look up from his notebook. He had always been the most serious student in our year, which (probably) explained why he was also the best actor and (certainly) why no one resented him for it.

“There.” Alexander had unfolded a wad of ten-dollar bills from his pocket and was counting them out on the table. “That’s fifty dollars.”

“For what?” Meredith said. “You want a lap dance?”

“Why, are you practicing for after graduation?”

“Bite me.”

“Ask nicely.”

“Fifty dollars for what?” I said, keen to interrupt. Meredith and Alexander had by far the foulest mouths among the seven of us, and took a perverse kind of pride in out-cussing each other. If we let them, they’d go at it all night.

Alexander tapped the stack of tens with one long finger. “I bet fifty dollars I can call the cast list right now and not be wrong.”

Five of us exchanged curious glances; Wren was still frowning into the fireplace.

“All right, let’s hear it,” Filippa said, with a wan little sigh, as though her curiosity had gotten the better of her.

Alexander pushed his unruly black curls back from his face and said, “Well, obviously Richard will be Caesar.”

“Because we all secretly want to kill him?” James asked.

Richard arched one dark eyebrow. “Et tu, Bruté?

Sic semper tyrannis,” James said, and drew the tip of his pen across his throat like a dagger. Thus always to tyrants.

Alexander gestured from one of them to the other. “Exactly,” he said. “James will be Brutus because he’s always the good guy, and I’ll be Cassius because I’m always the bad guy. Richard and Wren can’t be married because that would be gross, so she’ll be Portia, Meredith will be Calpurnia, and Pip, you’ll end up in drag again.”

Filippa, more difficult to cast than Meredith (the femme fatale) or Wren (the ingénue), was obliged to cross-dress whenever we ran out of good female parts—a common occurrence in the Shakespearean theatre. “Kill me,” she said.

“Wait,” I said, effectively proving Richard’s hypothesis that I was a permanent leftover in the casting process, “where does that leave me?”

Alexander studied me with narrowed eyes, running his tongue across his teeth. “Probably as Octavius,” he decided. “They won’t make you Antony—no offense, but you’re just not conspicuous enough. It’ll be that insufferable third-year, what’s his name?”

Filippa: “Richard the Second?”

Richard: “Hilarious. No, Colin Hyland.”

“Spectacular.” I looked down at the text of Pericles I was scanning, for what felt like the hundredth time. Only half as talented as any of the rest of them, I seemed doomed to always play supporting roles in someone else’s story. Far too many times I had asked myself whether art was imitating life or if it was the other way around.

Alexander: “Fifty bucks, on that exact casting. Any takers?”

Meredith: “No.”

Alexander: “Why not?”

Filippa: “Because that’s precisely what’ll happen.”

Richard chuckled and climbed out of his chair. “One can only hope.” He started toward the door and leaned over to pinch James’s cheek on his way out. “Goodnight, sweet prince—

James smacked Richard’s hand away with his notebook, then made a show of disappearing behind it again. Meredith echoed Richard’s laugh and said, “Thou art as hot a Jack in thy mood as any in Italy!

A plague o’ both your houses,” James muttered.

Meredith stretched—with a small, suggestive groan—and pushed herself off the couch.

“Coming to bed?” Richard asked.

“Yes. Alexander’s made all this work seem rather pointless.” She left her books scattered on the low table in front of the fire, her empty wineglass with them, a crescent of lipstick clinging to the rim. “Goodnight,” she said, to the room at large. “Godspeed.” They disappeared down the hall together.

I rubbed my eyes, which were beginning to burn from the effort of reading for hours on end. Wren tossed her book backward over her head, and I started as it landed beside me on the couch.

Wren: “To hell with it.”

Alexander: “That’s the spirit.”

Wren: “I’ll just do Isabella.”

Filippa: “Just go to bed.”

Wren stood slowly, blinking the vestigial light of the fire out of her eyes. “I’ll probably lie awake all night reciting lines,” she said.

“Want to come out for a smoke?” Alexander had finished his whiskey (again) and was rolling a spliff on the table. “Might help you relax.”

“No, thank you,” she said, drifting out into the hall. “Goodnight.”

“Suit yourself.” Alexander pushed his chair back, spliff poking out of one corner of his mouth. “Oliver?”

“If I help you smoke that I’ll wake up with no voice tomorrow.”


She nudged her glasses up into her hair and coughed softly, testing her throat. “God, you’re a terrible influence,” she said. “Fine.”

He nodded, already halfway out of the room, hands buried deep in his pockets. I watched them go, a little jealously, then slumped down against the arm of the couch. I struggled to focus on my text, which was so aggressively annotated that it was barely legible anymore.

PERICLES: Antioch, farewell! for wisdom sees those men

Blush not in actions blacker than the night

Will ’schew no course to keep them from the light.

One sin, I know, another doth provoke;

Murder’s as near to lust as flame to smoke.

I murmured the last two lines under my breath. I knew them by heart, had known them for months, but the fear that I would forget a word or phrase halfway through my audition gnawed at me anyway. I glanced across the room at James and said, “Do you ever wonder if Shakespeare knew these speeches half as well as we do?”

He withdrew from whatever verse he was reading, looked up, and said, “Constantly.”

I cracked a smile, vindicated just enough. “Well, I give up. I’m not actually getting anything done.”

He checked his watch. “No, I don’t think I am either.”

I heaved myself off the sofa and followed James up the spiral stairs to the bedroom we shared—which was directly over the library, the highest of three rooms in a little stone column commonly referred to as the Tower. It had once been used only as an attic, but the cobwebs and clutter had been cleared away to make room for more students in the late seventies. Twenty years later it housed James and me, two beds with blue Dellecher bedspreads, two monstrous old wardrobes, and a pair of mismatched bookshelves too ugly for the library.

“Do you think it’ll fall out how Alexander says?” I asked.

James pulled his shirt off, mussing his hair in the process. “If you ask me, it’s too predictable.”

“When have they ever surprised us?”

“Frederick surprises me all the time,” he said. “But Gwendolyn will have the final say, she always does.”

“If it were up to her, Richard would play all of the men and half the women.”

“Which would leave Meredith playing the other half.” He pressed the heels of his palms against his eyes. “When do you read tomorrow?”

“Right after Richard. Filippa’s after me.”

“And I’m after her. God, I feel bad for her.”

“Yeah,” I said. “It’s a wonder she hasn’t dropped out.”

James frowned thoughtfully as he wriggled out of his jeans. “Well, she’s a bit more resilient than the rest of us. Maybe that’s why Gwendolyn torments her.”

“Just because she can take it?” I said, discarding my own clothes in a pile on the floor. “That’s cruel.”

He shrugged. “That’s Gwendolyn.”

“If I had my way, I’d turn it all upside down,” I said. “Make Alexander Caesar and have Richard play Cassius instead.”

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.”

“Your time will come to be the tragic hero. Just wait for spring.”

I glanced up from the drawer I was pawing through. “Has Frederick been telling you secrets again?”

He lay down and folded his hands behind his head. “He may have mentioned Troilus and Cressida. He has this fantastic idea to do it as a battle of the sexes. All the Trojans men, all the Greeks women.”

“That’s insane.”

“Why? That play is as much about sex as it is about war,” he said. “Gwendolyn will want Richard to be Hector, of course, but that makes you Troilus.”

“Why on earth wouldn’t you be Troilus?”

He shifted, arched his back. “I may have mentioned that I’d like to have a little more variety on my résumé.”

I stared at him, unsure if I should be insulted.

“Don’t look at me like that,” he said, a low note of reproach in his voice. “He agreed we all need to break out of our boxes. I’m tired of playing fools in love like Troilus, and I’m sure you’re tired of always playing the sidekick.”

I flopped on my bed on my back. “Yeah, you’re probably right.” For a moment I let my thoughts wander, and then I breathed out a laugh.

“Something funny?” James asked, as he reached over to turn out the light.

“You’ll have to be Cressida,” I told him. “You’re the only one of us pretty enough.”

We lay there laughing in the dark until we dropped off to sleep, and slept deeply, with no way of knowing that the curtain was about to rise on a drama of our own invention.



Dellecher Classical Conservatory occupied twenty or so acres of land on the eastern edge of Broadwater, and the borders of the two so often overlapped that it was difficult to tell where campus ended and town began. The first-years were housed in a cluster of brick buildings in town, while the second- and third-years were crowded together at the Hall, and the handful of fourth-years were tucked away in odd isolated corners of campus or left to fend for themselves. We, the fourth-year theatre students, lived on the far side of the lake in what was whimsically called the Castle (not really a castle, but a small stone building that happened to have one turret, originally the groundskeepers’ quarters).

Dellecher Hall, a sprawling red brick mansion, looked down a steep hill to the dark flat water of the lake. Dormitories and the ballroom were on the fourth and fifth floors, classrooms and offices on the second and third, while the ground floor was divided into refectory, music hall, library, and conservatory. A chapel jutted off the west end of the building, and sometime in the 1960s, the Archibald Dellecher Fine Arts Building (generally referred to as the FAB, for more than one reason) was erected on the east side of the Hall, a small courtyard and honeycomb of corbeled walkways wedged between them. The FAB was home to the Archibald Dellecher Theatre and the rehearsal hall and, ergo, was where we spent most of our time. At eight in the morning on the first day of classes, it was exceptionally quiet.

Richard and I walked from the Castle together, though I wasn’t due to audition for another half hour.

“How do you feel?” he asked, as we climbed the steep hill to the lawn.

“Nervous, like I always am.” The number of auditions under my belt didn’t matter; the anxiety never really left me.

“No need to be,” he said. “You’re never as dreadful as you think you are. Just don’t shift your weight too much. You’re most interesting when you stand still.”

I frowned at him. “How do you mean?”

“I mean when you forget you’re onstage and forget to be nervous. You really listen to other actors, really hear the words like it’s the first time you’ve heard them. It’s wonderful to work with and marvelous to watch.” He shook his head at the look of consternation on my face. “I shouldn’t have told you. Don’t get self-conscious.” He clapped one huge hand on my shoulder, and I was so distracted I pitched forward, my fingertips brushing the dewy grass. Richard’s booming laugh echoed in the morning air, and he grabbed my arm to help me find my balance. “See?” he said. “Keep your feet planted and you’ll be fine.”

“You suck,” I said, but with a grudging smirk. (Richard had that effect on people.)

As soon as we reached the FAB, he gave me another cheery smack on the back and disappeared into the rehearsal hall. I paced back and forth along the crossover, puzzling over what he had said and repeating Pericles to myself like I was saying a string of Hail Marys.

Our first semester auditions determined which parts we would play in our fall production. That year, Julius Caesar. Tragedies and histories were reserved for the fourth-years, while the third-years were relegated to romance and comedy and all the bit parts were played by the second-years. First-years were left to work backstage, slog through general education, and wonder what the hell they’d gotten themselves into. (Each year, students whose performance was deemed unsatisfactory were cut from the program—often as many as half. To survive until fourth year was proof of either talent or dumb luck. In my case, the latter.) Class photos from the past fifty years hung in two neat rows along the wall in the crossover. Ours was the last and certainly the sexiest, a publicity photo from the previous year’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. We looked younger.

It was Frederick’s idea to do Midsummer

On Sale
Apr 17, 2018
Page Count
368 pages