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A Lesson in Dark Academia Mystery Novels: The Secret History and If We Were Villains

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The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at San Francisco chapter.

Over the past year, I have been on a mystery novel kick. I spent over six months (I am a slow reader, do not fault me) reading The Secret History by Donna Tartt, and it has changed my life entirely. After I finished it, desperately trying to fill an empty hole in my heart that it left, I picked up If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio. After the initial emotional whirlwind of my beloved favorite book passed, I quite enjoyed the deep, dark twists in this novel and where they led me. 

The Secret History by Donna Tartt is written unlike any other novel in its respective genre. Within the prologue, we learn whodunnit, who dies, and how he dies. We spend the rest of the novel figuring out why the killers did what they did and how they plan to clean it up. It turns the mystery genre completely on its head, and adds the dark academia aesthetic onto this already twisted genre. Using the dark academia aesthetic, Donna Tartt explores class issues in the Ivy League college scene. A lot of the main characters are a part of the upper class, yet are completely unaware of their own privilege. Even the narrator, Richard Papen, is seemingly unaware of his place in the world, often comparing himself to how the rest of the people at his college act. He separates himself from this world to dissociate, in a way, and validate some sort of innate sense of just that he believes he has. He refuses to think of himself as God, which makes him human. He is naïve, desperate for connection, and obsessive. This is what makes him an unreliable narrator, and such a good one. The way that Donna Tartt writes Richard Papen to make us believe in his endeavors, no matter how unjustifiable, is a level of brilliance that some of us can only dream of.

You find yourself sympathizing with Richard, being sucked headfirst into his world and held in his perspective for the entire novel. To even pick this novel and glance at it is to surrender yourself to it entirely. “Give in,” says the novel. “You are like Richard and everyone else, in a way. You think yourself different, but you are sorely mistaken.” I highly recommend giving your time to this book.

Similarly, If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio is a Shakespearean take on the typical mystery novel. This gives it more of a dramatic tone, but M.L. Rio uses this to play into the satirical drama of a typical mystery novel. Like The Secret History, this novel creates a world for us to dive into and learn about, including a complex cast of characters and plot points all told to us in the perspective of the heroic narrator, Oliver Marks. We learn in the beginning that he is in prison for a crime that he may or may not have committed, but by the end, we learn about the closeness and familiar nature of the theatre community.

Compared to The Secret History however, it falls flat. Some of the jokes and lines are a bit cheesy, and it ends up being a bit predictable. The beginning is a bit of a bore, but by the end, I have to admit that I was hooked. Oliver Marks is not flawed in the way that Richard Papen was, but he is a key observant character. He is seemingly the only one who can connect to all of the others in the group, which is the reason why he is the one who ended up in prison. We can’t relate to him, but we can gain a natural respect for what he had to do. This novel is a great read for those who want to start reading mystery novels, or for those of you who were in theatre in high school.

Whether you have just started reading mystery novels or you are a long-time forbidden lover of them, these two books are near-perfect examples of how to write a dark academia mystery novel. If you have the time, and you’re completely willing, these books are well worth it. They’re waiting for you to pick them up and fall madly into them.  

You can find them here: The Secret History (from Better World Books) 

The Secret History (from Green Apple Books SF)

If We Were Villains (from Better World Books)

If We Were Villains (from Green Apple Books SF)

Chloe Magallanes

San Francisco '26

My name is Chloe, and I am a second-year student at SFSU. I am looking to make new friends and be a part of a wonderful and welcoming team, which makes me so excited to be a part of Her Campus at SFSU. I enjoy writing about books, movies, art, and new music.