“If We Were Villains” by M. L. Rio (2017)

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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.

I can’t claim by any stretch of the imagination to be a Shakespeare scholar. Oh, I enjoy some of his plays and I find him a very fascinating historical figure, but despite my background being in storytelling, many of the nuances of his plays are unfortunately lost to me. I think it’s the language. For some people, however, Shakespeare can become an obsession and a way of life. This is all well and good, but his plays house some of the most intense emotions in the entirety of the English canon, and when those heightened feelings begin to run off the stage and into the real world, who knows what may happen…

Oliver Marks has just been released from prison after serving ten years for murder. The man who put him in prison, Detective Colborne, is there to meet him, and brings with him news. Colborne is retiring and asks Oliver, as a favour, to clear up a few things once and for all; the first of which being, what really happened that night ten years ago, and is Oliver actually as guilty as the world believes?

Through five acts, we flash back to Oliver and his friends in their fourth year at Dellecher, a prestigious and exclusive university in Illinois. There are seven of them in the group: Richard (bombastic and bullying), Wren (quiet and frail), Meredith (seductive and sexy), James (artistic and proud), Alexander (fun and flippant), Filippa (mysterious yet understanding) and Oliver himself, the eternal sidekick. The friends are often cast in the same sorts of roles over and over in their performances and it’s becoming difficult to tell where their characters end and where their true selves begin. After a particularly raucous party after a somewhat disastrous performance of Julius Caesar, one of their number is dead. Was it an accident, or is one of the remaining six a killer? As Oliver recounts his memories to Colborne, secrets are revealed, truths are uncovered and mysteries are unravelled.

I’m not the first to point it out, but there is absolutely no getting away from the fact that this book has an awful lot in common with Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. Both are filled with wealthy students in an eminent school, and one of them is killed. However, in Tartt’s novel, we know from the off that it’ll be Bunny. Here, we are almost two hundred pages in before we find out who the victim is. Here they’re theatre students, and Tartt writes about Greek students, but at the end of the day it all feels like it falls under the same umbrella of pretentiousness.

The characters are not particularly unlikable – most of them, anyway – but they would be insufferable to know personally. They are so wrapped up in their love of Shakespeare that they can (and do) quote whole scenes and passages conversationally, even when supposedly paralytic with drink. Their relationships with one another are beautifully intertwined and more complicated than they first appear, but the pairing I find most engaging is Oliver and James. Both ostensibly straight, they do seem to have some kind of feeling for one another. Oliver describes is as transcending gender, but Rio remains ambiguous towards the true nature of their relationship. Ambiguity laces a lot of the text, which feels apt. Shakespeare can be interpreted in any number of ways, and here again, the reader is invited to let their own ideas take hold.

As with The Secret History reading like a Greek tragedy, this one certainly plays out like something Shakespeare would have written, with themes of friendship, power, revenge, lust, grief, heartbreak and anger all bubbling through. Excusing the long conversations told through the Bard’s own words, it’s not that difficult a read and there’s certainly something that grips you. At first it’s because you want to know which character it is that’s going to die, and then once that’s done, you wonder whether Oliver did it and was rightly in prison, or if there’s something else going on.

As I said above, Shakespearean emotions run high and at the extremes. Here again, everyone feels intensely and I’m pretty sure there isn’t a single reader who wouldn’t be captivated by the story, their own emotions running very high. A very sharp novel, and one of those few examples that prove some literary fiction still has a place in the world.

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“Bad Monkeys” by Matt Ruff (2007)

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bad monkeys“It’s a room an uninspired playwright might conjure while staring at a blank page: White walls.White ceiling. White floor.”

We like to think, I hope, that, while there are people in this world capable of incredible evil – regardless of whether or not they actually think they’re doing the right thing or not – they are heavily outnumbered by the forces of good who will always save the day.

Bad Monkeys is the story of “the organisation”, a crack team that scours the world fighting evil. Jane Charlotte is their newest recruit and after brushing up against them in her teenage years when she accidentally discovers that her school janitor is a serial killer, she is left in limbo for two decades before she is properly recruited to the department of Bad Monkeys, the team that kills those who perform evil deeds.

But Jane has killed someone who wasn’t on her assignment list, and she’s now in a stark white room being questioned by a doctor who can’t tell if she’s lying, insane or, most terrifyingly of all, telling the truth. She whips up a world in which she is tracking down the Mandrills, a rival organisation responsible for baseless evil, accompanied by a homeless woman called Annie, three men called Robert, and some clowns, all the while armed with a gun that kills people by natural causes and drugs that affect the laws of physics. As Jane’s story is picked apart by the doctor, it becomes clear that absolutely nothing is as it seems.

The book is very clear in that Jane and her fellow operatives are responsible for tackling “evil” rather than “crime”. They have almost limitless information on every human on the planet and can track down everything about you in minutes, not only knowing, say, what books you’ve taken out of libraries, but how often you’ve read them and which paragraphs particularly appealed to you. Although in theory good, the organisation has some strange technology, forefront of most is the Eyes Only technology. These are small, almost invisible lenses that can see and hear whatever’s going on in a room, and are generally placed on a pair of eyes somewhere in a room. This means any poster, photo, painting, billboard, newspaper, book cover, or even banknote could be watching you. (When reading this earlier I thought I was safe, then decided I might not actually have been in an eye-free room all day.)

The book is, frankly, insane, but I really enjoyed it. The secret agency trope has been done to death (not that that’s a complaint;I like a secret world hidden just under our own), but not ever quite as maniacally as it’s been shown here. It’s a madcap romp through a study of what makes someone good or evil, and how the two states marry up. It also works well as a thriller, with constant twists and turns in the story, and explaining things the wrong way round so they’re never happening exactly as we imagine they might be.

I definitely came away satisfied, and with a desire to find out more, but, just like in real life, some things are best kept secret. A stellar, quick read that might be a bit nuts, but also works wonderfully as a genuinely tense thriller.