If We Were Villains, M.L. Rio’s first novel, is a fabulous literary thriller, published in 2017 to huge critical acclaim. The book combines elements of Shakespearian drama, dark academia, secrecy, and a suspenseful locked-door mystery for an absolutely killer good read.
Oliver Marks, who has just finished a 10-year stint in prison for killing his friend and fellow student Richard Stirling, is finally telling the true story of when Richard died. Unfortunately, Detective Joe Colburn, who put Oliver away for the crime, has never fully believed in Oliver’s guilt. Nor has he completely believed in Oliver’s innocence, either.
Ten years before, Oliver was one of just seven seniors at a selective cut-throat arts academy, Dellecher Classical Conservatory. Oliver, Richard, James, Alexander, Filipa, Wren, and Meredith concentrate their study singularly on The Bard, in a perpetual state of performance of Shakespeare’s greatest works.
The story follows the seven friends and rivals as they act out their roles onstage and cannot help but continue them off-stage. Dramatic and villainous behavior spills off the stage into their personal lives.
Until one fateful night when the drama culminates in fatal violence, and one of their own is found dead.
This list is for you if you love If We Were Villains and are looking for a new dark academic, a new locked-door mystery, or a new literary thriller that leans into intellectual academia while at the same time capturing the social dynamics of today – or maybe even all three at once!
The Secret History
By Diana Tartt
From the illustrious author Donna Tartt of The Goldfinch (Pulitzer Prize winner for Literature) comes The Secret History. A fabulous dark academic psychological thriller, The Secret History, is the story of Richard Papen. At Hampden College, Richard is drawn into a group of elite students in the Classics major, where much of the study is Greek Translation and Classic Literature led by a particularly charismatic professor, Professor Julian Morrow. Richard has escaped a troubled home and constructs a rich upbringing to fit into the elite six-person major.
We watch Richard and his elitist Classics major friends, directed by Professor Morrow, as they delve into the depths of intellectual and social indulgences until the breaking point is “accidental” and yet premeditated murder. The drama of the exclusive group’s relationships shine through the narrative, exposing each character and their fatal flaws.
This story is the mirror of a Greek tragedy set in modern times. It’s great for If We Were Villains fans, as it explores similar indulgent elitist social dynamics. This is an affecting psychological/intellectual thriller and a dark academic why/how-dunnit mystery that is sure to appeal to If We Were Villains fans.
You can buy The Secret History here.
By Tana French
Broken Harbor is a psychological crime thriller set in a newly built housing development outside of Dublin. The book follows Detective Mick “Scorcher” Kennedy as he works on a puzzling murder of a seemingly happy family, a father, two children, and a mother who barely survived the brutal and bloody attack.
Kennedy is the absolute best at his job, which is why he is given this difficult murder to solve. But the deeper he goes into the case, the closer he comes to his own difficult past. The clues to the mystery are strange, from baby monitors pointed into holes in the walls to cat burglars who don’t burgle to those much closer to his own traumatic past.
Kennedy’s past begins to blur into the mystery at Broken Harbor, and Kennedy questions both his own sanity and whether the killer could actually be closer to him than he thought possible. This story is great for fans of If We Were Villains because of its complexly woven plot and characters, the twisty unguessable whodunnit, and French’s amazing ability to thematically allude to the larger questions of life.
You can purchase Broken Harbor here.
The Bellwether Revivals
By Benjamin Wood
This fabulous debut literary thriller, set in Cambridge, England, follows Oscar Lowe, a mousy nursing home assistant who pines for a better, bigger life. One day Oscar meets Iris Bellwether, a gorgeous and talented musician.
Iris brings Oscar into her high-brow tumultuous world, introducing him to her brother Eden, a musical prodigy who proves to be both a charismatic leader and highly questionable. Eden convinces Bellwether’s elitist circle of friends to engage in a series of musical experiments that prove very dangerous.
This literary thriller explores themes of the healing power of music, class status, love and loss, and ultimately the fine line between genius and insanity.
You can buy The Bellwether Rivals here.
The Long Drop
By Denise Mina
Set in 1950s Glasgow, this fascinating psychological thriller is a dramatization of real-life crime. Peter Manuel was England’s first serial killer. William Watt is accused of the crime of murdering his wife, daughter, and sister-in-law, though he has a watertight alibi. So he offers a reward to anyone who comes forward with information on what really happened. And Peter Manuel emerges with information only the killer could have.
But within the meeting between Watts and Manuel is a mystery, unwritten in the history of the actual crime and trial. Mina creates a story focusing on a blank spot, a story of the night the two men met for a pint and ended up drunkenly out on the town all night, showing up in many a dangerous, debauched, and tawdry locale.
The Long Drop’s similarities to If We Were Villains are its complex and very real characters, the many time jumps, the layering of meaning and 20/20 hindsight of time, and the focus on blurred societal and class lines.
You can purchase The Long Drop here.
Alex Stern is given a scholarship to Yale University. But it comes with a major catch, she must spy on the secret societies of Yale that use, and at times abuse, magic. Alex is only granted entrance into the Ninth House and the university for her unique ability to see ghosts.
This dark academia story is a murder mystery, which Alex is particularly well-suited to solving. But Alex comes with the haunting of her own past, and she is deeply troubled, which makes doing almost anything successfully difficult for her.
Though Ninth House is a fantasy, it is also a dark academic thriller quite similar to If We Were Villains. In both books, there are dueling timelines that add to the mystery and suspense of the story and themes of class status colliding. Leigh Bardugo’s style of writing creates an immersive atmosphere, much like If We Were Villains.
This recommendation would be remiss if we didn’t mention the trigger warnings. Ninth House deals with addiction, sexual assault, and healing from sexual assault.
You can buy Ninth House here.
Now You See Us: A Novel
By Balli Kaur Jaswal
Flordeliza Martinez, a Filipina maid working in Singapore, is arrested and accused of murdering her employer. The case is splashed across news outlets, shocking three Filipina women also working as domestic help in Singapore. Angel is an in-home caregiver for an infirm elderly woman, Donita, young and brash, works in the home of a very picky woman and has begun an affair with an Indian carpenter, and Corazon is back in Singapore after previously retiring, harboring a secret from her friends and employer.
Angel, Donita, and Corozon live very different lives despite their shared domestic work but see themselves a little too much in Florideliza Martinez’s case. Everyone who does domestic work in Singapore knows a woman who has played the scapegoat for a crime she didn’t commit, some even having faced execution.
The three friends put their heads together to uncover the real facts of the murder, relying on their strength, audacity, and each other. Now You See Us is a great choice for If We Were Villains fans because it combines a multiple-POV mystery with intricate elitist class dynamics and dramatic interpersonal relationships.
You can purchase Now You See Us here.
Where the Crawdads Sing
By Delia Owens
Kya is abandoned in the North Carolina marshlands as a child, where she raises herself with a bit of assistance from a kind couple that own a gas station at the boat launch closer to town. Growing up, Kya learns how to live off the bounty of the marsh, living a wild and unschooled life. As she grows into womanhood, her natural affinity for nature turns her into the consummate naturalist of the North Carolina marshland.
Much like If We Were Villains, this literary thriller is woven through timelines, Kya’s experience raising herself into womanhood alone in the marsh, and her husband’s experience in the aftermath of her passing and the mystery of Chase Andrew’s murder. When Chase, the town golden boy, is murdered and found in the marsh, Kya is blamed.
Kya’s study of the marsh and her highly academic study of the animals in the marsh ecosystem are core to the story. These perspectives show different visions of the events of Kya’s life, yet they meld together into a cohesive and beautifully written whole, much like in If We Were Villains.
You can purchase Where the Crawdads Sing here.
By Leila Slimani
This intense literary thriller is a parent’s nightmare come true. Lullaby begins with the horrifying revelation that a nanny has killed the two children in her care. The book explores the complex psychological relationships in a family where both parents focus on their respective careers and a nanny becomes immersed in the lives of two children to a dangerous and obsessive degree.
The Parisienne family is affluent and successful, with parents Miriam and Paul employing the nanny, Louise, to care for their children Adam and Mila. The storyline moves through time, jumping backward and following both the mother’s and the nanny’s perspectives.
Slimani evokes a suspenseful dread throughout the story, delving deeply into the psychology of a cultural subset of people who must contend daily with class, race, and gender in doing domestic work.
Lullaby is for If We Were Villains fans interested in psychological thrillers that plumb the dark depths of relationships between the classes and are drawn to stories written in a sharp journalistic manner that leaves the reader to parse together their own moral judgment of the story.
You can purchase Lullaby here.
By Christopher J. Yates
Set in Oxford, Black Chalk is about six brilliant friends taking part in an intense high-stakes and high-finance game. Each of the six came to Oxford on scholarship, differentiating and excluding them from the general population of Oxford University. The friends create a game where the loser has to complete “consequences,” like a dare in the game truth or dare. The winner of the game would win a huge financial prize, £1000.
The friends play the game over the years of their study at Oxford, which creates ever more serious and humiliating consequences for the players. Friendships fracture and turn poisonous. The dares create a more and more isolating situation for each of the players, turning the players against each other until the worst happens.
Fourteen years later, the players meet again to have one last round of the game. Maybe someone will win. And maybe, the losses will be far worse than before.
You can purchase Black Chalk here.
By V.E. Schwab
In college, Eli and Victor were the closest of friends and competitors. Practically inseparable, the two become obsessed with Extra-Ordinaries, or EOs, Eli and Victor will do almost anything to research and even attempt to become an EO. Including putting themselves, and each other, in grave danger.
Today, after ten years in prison, Victor has broken out and is coming for Eli. His need to take revenge upon Eli has become his everything. Eli has moved on to bigger and more treacherous frontiers, or so he would have everyone believe.
Vicious holds up a mirror to our humanity, much like in If We Were Villains. Themes of technological advancement, morality, privilege, and power all thread throughout the story, walking the line between what is possible and what is right. The interplay between today’s dramatic superhero/villain trope and the dark academic atmosphere in the past timeline is a potent mix, with something for comic book lovers and academics alike.
You can purchase Vicious here.
The Hunting Party: A Novel
By Lucy Foley
Lucy Foley is a master at the (almost) locked-door mystery genre. In The Hunting Party, a group of friends who met at Oxford 10 years ago get together for a yearly New Year’s Eve party at a secluded lodge in the Scottish Highlands. Samira, Mark, Miranda, Katie, Giles, and Julian are a closely-knit group of successful, beautiful, moneyed, and powerful elites.
After a crazy New Year’s eve party, one of them goes missing, only to be found dead on the frozen grounds of the lodge. The mystery explores a number of different perspectives throughout the story. Everyone and no one had a reason to have committed the murder. The unraveling of the mystery of that night and the characters themselves is what makes this book so powerful.
Like If We Were Villains and most of the books in this list, The Hunting Party addresses issues of class and privilege set in a luxurious and exclusive location. Like many books on this list, the outsiders bring contrast and reality to the story. Emma, Mark’s girlfriend and late-comer to the exclusive group, is the planner of this year’s party. Heather and Doug are the staff, each running from an uncomfortable past. It is a murder mystery within a group of elites full of twists and surprising turns sure to please If We Were Villains fans.
You can buy The Hunting Party here.
Temptation (The Secret Diaries Book 1)
By Janice Harrell
In this suspenseful high-school-based YA dark academic book, Joanna is an outsider. She desperately wants to be one of the in-crowd, a very tight-knit group of students, Casey, Penn, Tessa, and Stephen. The group’s friend, Laurie Jenkins, disappeared just a couple of weeks before Joanna moved to town to live with her father.
And regardless of why Laurie disappeared, Joanna wants to be just like her, maybe even to stand in for Laurie, to be the one Penn wants to be with. Because Joanna definitely wants to be with him.
Joanna writes her recording of her life in a coded diary she terms the Secret Diaries. Between Laurie’s disappearance (and possible murder) and the elite clique of rich kids, this dark academic is an If We Were Villains fan crowd-pleaser.
You can buy Temptation here.
The Atlas Six (The Atlas Series)
By Olivie Blake
Six top students are selected from all over the world to be a part of the Alexandrian Society. They will be given one year to learn, to become proficient, to become excellent, and even extraordinary at the most elite magic and learning, and then they would be given the most exceptional thing possible, access to the library of Alexandria. The catch? At the end of the year, only five will be inducted. And one must die.
Each chapter follows one of the six perspective Alexandrians. This year’s class are amazing, brilliant young people, as each class must be. Libby and Nico are the worst of enemies and the highest of talents. The two join Reina, Parisa, Tristan, and Callum in the most elite and surprising competition and expansion of knowledge.
The Atlas Six is a fantasy but a perfect match for If We Were Villains fans. The complex, morally gray characters, dark academic setting, plotline, and ultimate mystery will be an absolute win if you love If We Were Villains.
You can purchase The Atlas Six here.
By Kate Weinburg
Jess is a bright and ambitious 18-year-old girl embarking on her first year of college at East Anglican University. Jess is at the college because she’s enamored with Professor Lorna Clay’s writing, an author she’s read and admired for quite some time. Clay focuses her study and writing on Agatha Christie, which certainly informs this story.
As the story unfolds, Jess befriends the privileged and troubled Georgie, her boyfriend Alec, who Jess has her suspicions about. Jess starts dating Nick, a geology student. The four become an inseparable and somewhat debauched group. But when Lorna Clay begins to insert her influence over the group of misfits, dynamics turn for the worst.
This literary thriller story explores how it is that small crimes of youth become larger, more intense problems, similar to If We Were Villains. The characters are beautifully wrought, and Weinburg’s writing shines in painting these real, complex characterizations while probing larger questions of morality in brilliance.
You can buy The Truants here.
Truly Devious: A Mystery
By Maureen Johnson
In the 1930’s, Albert Ellingham was the richest, most successful person in the US. He founded Ellingham Academy, a prestigious school for gifted children. But in 1936 Ellingham’s wife and daughter were kidnapped and a threatening ransom note was left signed ‘Truly, Devious’. An Ellingham student was murdered simultaneously with the kidnapping, and the case was never solved.
Today, a talented true crime enthusiast, Stevie Bell starts her first year at Ellingham Academy with a plan to solve the cold Truly Devious murder/kidnapping case. With the help and hindrance of her new housemates, a novelist, a comedian, an actor, an artist, and an inventor, Stevie works to solve the case.
But suddenly, Truly Devious (or a copycat of?) makes a reappearance. There is another murder, and an interesting intellectual exercise becomes a very real danger. Solving the old case and the new become more pressing and more troubling.
Truly Devious is a great fit for If We Were Villain lovers because of its dual timeline and perspectives, original and prestigious dark academic locale, and fabulous murder mysteries.
You can buy Truly Devious here.
Special Topics in Calamity Physics
By Marrisa Pessl
Blue Van Meer is an unusual teenager. She has traveled the world with her father, a guest lecturing professor, has had a classical and cultural education, and now will attend St. Galloway School, an elite high school in St. Galloway, NC for her senior year. Blue is an original, but with a teacher’s intervention, she finds she wants a group of friends to finish her high school career with.
So when she is included in a school clique called The Bluebloods, she acquiesces to being a ‘part of’. Unfortunately for Blue, within short order, there is a murder and a drowning.
Blue is faced with the realities of adulthood, discovering things about herself and her loved ones that shatter childhood illusions. Suddenly she is in the middle of a murder investigation, with more pressing issues than fitting in or getting into a prestigious college.
You can purchase Special Topics in Calamity Physics here.
The Guest List
By Lucy Foley
As mentioned earlier in this list, Lucy Foley is a fabulous creator of the closed-door murder mystery involving social and financial class struggles. In The Guest List, a posh wedding of two famous people is planned on a remote island in the Irish sea. Through the alternating perspectives, we find that everyone has a secret to keep, and with a bit too much pressure, alcohol, and “good” friends, someone ends up dead.
The secluded island provides the perfect backdrop for a suspenseful mystery, and as the book goes on, more murders occur. Figuring out the secrets of the past will help stop the killer today, as long as the right person finds out.
This mystery thriller has elements that will appeal to If We Were Villains fans because of the storyline exploring the dark academic vibes of some of the character’s past at an elite and moneyed boarding school, the exploration of how financial and cultural class affect experiences at a school, and the multitude of perspectives of an event.
You can purchase The Guest List here.
By Mona Awad
Samantha McCay is an outsider in her prestigious college MFA fiction program. In her tiny creative writing class are four other girls, all privileged, rich, and beautiful, with decidedly odd relationships with each other. These girls refer to each other as ‘bunny,’ and behave like a piece of a whole. Samantha is preoccupied with making fun of the bunnies to her only friend, Ava.
Until Samantha herself is invited to a ‘smut salon.’ As much as she professes dislike for the bunnies, Samantha also desperately wants to belong. So she ditches Ava and goes to the bunnies’ party. Before too long, she’s drawn into the bunnies’ strange co-dependent dream world.
If We Were Villains fans will love this dark academia thriller for its fantastical satire on the closed world of academia, the look at how money and prestige affect the culture of a school, and the exploration of how morality grays in group dynamics.
You can purchase Bunny here.
By Adriana Mather
November has been marooned at a peculiar and exclusive school, the international Academy Absconditi. The academy is completely off-grid – no electricity, no cell, nor anything from the outside world allowed. Classes include questionable topics like poisons and the art of deception.
The other students are as unlike November as she can imagine, with heirs and silver spoons all around. She has no idea why her father insisted on sending her here. And she’s beginning to question whether what she knows about his ancestors is true at all. The students all seem to be studying to become international strategists, assassins, and spies.
And when another student is murdered, November must figure out who at the school is her friend and who exactly is her foe. Before she becomes the next on the murderer’s list.
You can buy Killing November here.
Laertes: A Hamlet Retelling
By Carly Stevens
Laertes is a Hamlet retelling perfect for If We Were Villains lovers. This dark academic follows Laertes Belleforest through the two sides of his life, his passion-filled education in the Classics in Paris and his much more restrictive life in the Danish court. The juxtaposition of Laertes and Hamlet is even more poignant here than in the original.
This retelling takes an original look at the Hamlet story, interweaving Laertes’ original Hamlet storyline with a 1920’s-tinged look at how Laertes’ agency, personal motivations, and relationships might have looked had Hamlet focused more on his story. This story is a beautifully written, complex character study of not the man that was Ophelia’s brother and Polonius’s son but also the other main and side characters.
If you loved If We Were Villains, then Laertes is for you. It is the combination of Shakespeare, dark academia, a murder mystery, and the study in contrasts that If We Were Villains also provides.
You can buy Laertes here.
What are the trigger warnings in If We Were Villains?
Content Warning list: murder, death, grief, parental (physical and emotional) abuse. The accepted age range for reading If We Were Villains is 13 and up.
Is there a sequel to If We Were Villains?
No prequels, no sequels, or spinoffs are planned or in existence for If We Were Villains.
What genre is If We Were Villains?
If We Were Villains fits into more than one genre. Those genres are dark academic, murder mystery, thriller, and gothic romance.
Who is the narrator of If We Were Villains?
Oliver Marks. Oliver is one of seven actors and students. Some might consider Oliver an unreliable narrator.
How old is Oliver Marks in If We Were Villains?
Oliver is 31 years old. He was just released from a ten-year prison stint for killing fellow student Richard Stirling when Oliver was 21.
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