Find it at your library!

I loved Agatha Christie mysteries as a kid, and Magpie Murders is styled in that vein with a fun twist: it’s a book within a book (for those of us who like our books with a side of…more books). Susan, an editor, is reading the ninth volume in a mystery series by her publishing company’s most famous (and perhaps not coincidentally, most irritating) author, and we get to read the manuscript along with Susan. Then we get to be eager spectators as Susan puts on her detective cap and investigates a murder herself. That’s a lot of murder for the price of one. What a bargain!

I was nervous to go with the audio version because I worried the two narratives would get confused in my head. I’m glad other readers convinced me to give it a try, because it wasn’t hard to follow at all. There isn’t much switching back and forth between the two storylines because most of the manuscript is delivered in one chunk, and the two narrators (one male, one female, both delightfully British) further differentiate them.

It had been a while since I read a classic mystery like this, so I will admit some of the tropes of the genre grated on my nerves. There were too many red herrings, requiring some of them to be unceremoniously brushed aside once proven untrue, which left me feeling manipulated and even annoyed when one of my favorite theories was explained away in particularly unconvincing fashion. The characters’ naivete also made my eye twitch a little bit. Without getting too spoiler-y, there was a moment late in the book when a character confronted another character who had committed a murder without seeming to realize the danger of doing so. Can you imagine telling a killer you know what they did and expecting it to be a polite conversation that ends with them shaking your hand and saying, “Ah, you got me old chap, now off I go to the police station to turn myself in”? I’m all for dramatic irony, but there’s a line between the satisfaction of knowing something a character doesn’t and wanting to backhand a simple bitch for their stupidity.

Those quibbles aside, Magpie Murders was a lively diversion and made for a nice addition to my creepy seasonal reading list. Just remember, kids, if you discover someone is a murderer, get police backup before blurting out what you know.

Find it at your library!

College students can be pretentious a-holes. I know, because I was one. I was a student of literature (see? Why couldn’t I just say “English major”?) instead of theater, like the group of friends in If We Were Villains, but the effect is the same. Throwing out obscure references in casual conversation, trying to out-intellectualize everyone else, making mundane observations in a way that is supposed to seem “deep”—21-year-old Taryn was guilty of all of that. There is a particular high that comes from eviscerating another student’s point with textual evidence, a sharp tone, and a haughty flip of one’s hair. I remember it well.

So yeah, the characters in this book are pretentious to the max. They attend an exclusive art school where students are cut from the theater program each year, leaving only a handful to survive to senior year. Oh, and they perform Shakespeare. ONLY Shakespeare. Because no other play ever written by anyone else in the history of the world is worthy of their attention, obvs. The seven friends/frenemies that make up the cast, if you will, quote Shakespeare constantly, even in their off-time, even when completely plastered. Like the characters they play onstage, they are larger than life, their flaws and foibles magnified, their romantic entanglements and betrayals explosive. While part of me was rolling my eyes at them, another part was salivating to see what crazy shit they were going to do to each other next.

Because crazy shit is a guarantee from the beginning. One of the seven died senior year, and another one of the seven went to jail for it. Now ten years have passed and he’s being released from prison, but the true story of what happened and why is…complicated. I couldn’t turn pages fast enough to unravel the mystery. And the book is peppered throughout with descriptions of performances they staged, which worked so well and brought the story so vividly to life. Especially when the actors go off-script. (Think about it—anything can happen onstage during a performance. You could physically hurt another actor, and they would have to choose between breaking character and ruining the show, or taking it stoically so the show can go on. I had never realized how vulnerable you are to the people you’re performing with! Yikes!! How did I survive all those high school musicals?)

I got a bit of whiplash from a couple of too-fast plot twists right at the end of the book, but overall, If We Were Villains was a super fun way to revisit my past. And it made me thankful I escaped my pompous college days without a brush with murder.

With regards to Flatiron Books and Goodreads for the advance copy, which I was tickled to win in a recent giveaway. On sale today, April 11!