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Learn what happens in the book. This If We Were Villains summary details the plot of the popular dark academia novel (and explains the ending). You’ll get all your questions answered here, so let’s get literary!

if we were villains book with julius caesar book in front of couch.

If We Were Villains was one of Bustle’s Best Thriller Novels of the Year in 2018, and Kirkus’s starred review reported that “[t]his novel about obsession at the conservatory will thoroughly obsess you.”

If We Were Villains Summary (Without Spoilers)

Colborne: “Do you blame Shakespeare for any of it?”

Oliver: “I blame him for all of it.”

–page 248

I have a lot to tell you in this If We Were Villains summary, whether you’ve read it or not, including what happens, especially at the end, which can be confusing, especially given the many characters in If We Were Villains.

If We Were Villains begins at the end. Oliver Marks has been in jail for events that occurred ten years later — a college story. The investigating officer, Joseph Colborne, pays him a regular visit to let him know he’s retiring from the force and, again, seeks “the truth” about what happened.

So, it’s clear Colborne doesn’t believe Oliver to be guilty. Oliver finally agrees that, once he is released, he will tell Colborne the full story.

Next, in five acts that are reminiscent of Shakespeare, we learn what really happened in 1997 at the Dellecher Classical Conservatory in Broadwater, Illinois, where seven theater students known as “the players,” were studying and performing Shakespeare during their fourth and final year at the school.

Almost immediately it’s foreshadowed there is one student they all “want to kill,” (page 8), and indeed, after a pivotal performance and a night of drunken debauchery, one of their own ends up dead.

The question is whether it was an accident or murder. Also at issue is how the players respond to the emergency situation.

As their fourth year progresses and famous Shakespearean tragedies like Julius Caesar, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, and King Lear are performed, they are engulfed by the traumatic fallout of the death, as well as their all-consuming obsession with Shakespeare and the extreme emotions his works cause them to feel:

“…from ecstasy to anguish, love to hate, wonder to terror.”

-page 248

Oliver describes this to Colborne as what caused the players to lose touch with reality and struggle to sort out their own emotions from those of their characters.

And, indeed, their actions show it. The players each travel down many dark, twisted, and even surprising, paths over the year.

The suspense builds to a crescendo, and the truth is revealed.

Ending Explained (With Spoilers)

Warning: There are spoilers in this section.

While cleaning in 1997, Oliver finds a bloody boat hook hidden within James’s mattress and realizes that James killed Richard with it. James admits this to Oliver, and claims he did it after Richard called James and Oliver “queer for each other” but he “didn’t mean to.” (page 332)

However, when Colborne comes to a showing of Romeo and Juliet to arrest James, Oliver, realizing he loves James, falsely confesses to the murder.

Ten years later, Filippa tells Oliver that James died by suicide in a drowning four years earlier. (pages 445-446)

Oliver moves in with Meredith, who is a television actress, and Filippa gives Oliver a note that James had left behind for him. It’s a passage from Pericles, a Shakespearean play, that propels Oliver to research James’s death. In doing so, Oliver discovers that James’s body was never found and, thus, it remains open-ended whether he may still be alive.

Get a full review of If We Were Villains, including the pros and cons.

Frequently Asked Questions

What happens in If We Were Villains?

If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio is a dark academia mystery novel about seven Shakespearean theater students in 1997. When one of them dies, the circumstances of his death come into question and, ultimately, another one of them, Oliver, is imprisoned for his murder. Ten years later, upon Oliver’s prison release, he agrees to tell the retiring detective, who never believed he was guilty, the truth about what happened.

What are the trigger warnings for If We Were Villains?

If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio is a dark book with many trigger warnings, including murder, violence, suicide, alcohol and drug use and addiction, incarceration, physical and emotional abuse, blood, post-traumatic stress, homophobia, and more.

What happens at the end of If We Were Villains?

At the end of If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio, it’s revealed that James killed Richard after Richard called James and Oliver “queer for each other.” Oliver falsely confessed because he loved James. Ten years later, Oliver learns that James was presumed to have died, though his body was never found. He is released from prison and moves in with Meredith, who is a television actress.


This If We Were Villains summary detailed a superbly executed coming-of-age novel that masterfully intertwines Shakespearean tragedies with a modern Fall-themed mystery, giving readers a haunting tale of passion in which they can indulge.

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