scop (noun):

Old English – bard, minstrel, storyteller

Writing Mysteries:
Round-Robin Storytelling

June 1st, 2022

In 1995, crime writers Edna Buchanan, Vicki Hendricks, Elmore Leonard, Paul Levine, and Les Standiford and eight of their writing colleagues penned the round-robin mystery novel Naked Came the Manatee. Conceives as a parody of the thriller genre and a response to an earlier multi-author novel titled Naked Came the Stranger (which has 24 writers!), Manatee originally appeared as 13 installments published in Tropic Magazine (a Sunday supplement to the Miami Herald).

The plot centers on three fictional sleuths ( Les Standiford’s John Deal, Paul Levine’s Jake Lassiter, and Edna Buchanan’s Britt Montero) who team up to solve the mystery of a package delivered by a manatee.

In an interview with Barbara Peters, founder of the Poisoned Pen Press and Bookstore, author Dave Barry tells how he wrote the first chapter and then passed it on to Tropic editor Tom Shroder.

Shroder then passed it on to other writers, and each in turn built upon the tale before Carl Hiaasen stepped in to tie it all together in a final chapter.

In this way, the composition process resembles the one followed by the New Towne Players as they develop the story of the plot against Tim Vetchi (aka The Victim) in the Act V of Prime Stage Mystery Theatre’s “A Most Deadly Poison” (which you can hear by clicking the player below).

Not surprisingly, the round-robin process has become a favorite among writing groups and teachers.

While teaching at the University of Oregon, novelist Ken Kesey developed the exercise into the novel Caverns, about a convicted murderer who leads an expedition to a secret cave in Utah. The 14-author exercise was published in 1989.

I too had good success with the process back in the days when I was teaching Writing Popular Fiction at Seton Hill University. It’s a great way to get ideas flowing, and it’s fun seeing the kinds of stories that spring from even the simplest premise.

If you’re part of a writing group or classroom, consider giving it a try. To get you started, the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) has an article titled “Round-Robin Oral Storytelling.” I can’t guarantee a published novel will result, but you’re likely to discover–as August LaFleur says in Mystery Theatre–that “stories are everywhere.”

Click play. I’ll meet you there.

This Week on Mystery Theatre:
Flipping, Turning, and Rotating Clues

May 26th, 2022

The person in the picture is not standing by a lake. In fact, he isn’t standing at all—a realization that becomes obvious once the photo is rotated 90 degrees to the left, at which point we see that the boy is lying with his back to a fallen tree and a foot propped against its upended roots.

The photo achieved meme status a few years back, making the rounds on social media and landing in an article in The Sun, where it appeared with 21 other mind-bending photographs under the headline “Look Again: These Optical Illusions Made Us Look Twice.”

And you will need to look twice … or in some cases three or four times because, as August LaFleur states in the current episode of Prime Stage Mystery Theatre, “The mind sees what it thinks it sees.”

Another Sun article considers the photo at right, which shows either a man running away or a dog running toward the viewer. Titled “Fur Real,” the article proposes that what we see may reflect our psychological state. “If you are currently anxious, you are much more likely to see the man escaping,” says psychologist Lee Chambers, who is quoted in the article. By contrast, Chambers asserts, “If you are an optimistic individual, you are more likely to see something coming into your life and see the dog.”

Such is the case with other bistable figures, like the woman discussed in my two previous posts (which you can read here and here). That woman, who features prominently in our current episode of Mystery Theatre, provides an important clue to one of the story’s central puzzles.

Perspective reversals like those featured in our latest mystery have a long history that stretches back at least as far as the bistable staircase published by Heinrich G. F. Schröder in 1858, which may have been the inspiration for M. C. Escher’s 1955 lithograph “Convex and Concave” (pictured below).

One interesting quality shared by all of these images is the way they seem completely fixed at first glance. To viewers who see a person in the picture above, it initially seems inconceivable that the photograph is actually of a dog.

And yet, after staring at the picture for 7.5-21.5 seconds, most viewers will perceive an involuntary shift that may be attributed “either to neuronal fatigue or to conscious selection,” suggesting that how we perceive things is in some ways beyond our control.

All of this brings us to Act 4 of Prime Stage Mystery Theatre’s “A Most Deadly Poison,” where the physical or perceptual act of flipping, turning, and rotating leads to a revelation about the story’s central mystery.

You can hear that episode by clicking the player below … or by going to the Prime Stage website (or your favorite podcast app) where you’ll find a complete list of all Mystery Theatre stories. And once you’ve checked those out, if you know of any other confounding photos or drawings like the ones featured in the podcast, please pass them along.

And now … on with the show:

This Week on Mystery Theatre:
Strange Paintings and Stranger Names

May 19th, 2022

Is the woman in the portrait turning toward or away from the viewer? Is she young or is she old? And what if anything might she reveal about the name Ms. Ambertin?

It’s enough to confound even a master sleuth, and yet–according to August LaFleur–everything you need to answer the questions and more may be hanging right before your eyes.

Such is the challenge that awaits you in Act III of Prime Stage Mystery Theatre’sA Most Deadly Poison,” which drops today on a podcast platform near you … or at the newly designed program page on the Prime Stage Theatre website.

<<< A colorized version of the two-faced portrait from Dazzling News.

My previous post (which you can find here) deals with the history of the two-faced optical illusion pictured above. It also features a half-dozen variations of the image that appeared between 1888 to 2021. And since those versions are only a sampling of the renderings created since the graphic first appeared on a German postcard over 100 years ago, the current Myster Theatre episode also invites you to submit other variations (or any other intriguing mindbending pictures) you might know of. I’ll try featuring some of them in a future post.

If you’ve been following the podcast, you’re also aware that the walls of the room in which “A Most Deadly Poison” takes place are hung with two landscapes that may not be at all what they seem. Both have something in common with the painting at right (from Public Domain Vectors). Take a look. What do you see? And what might it reveal about how the letters in the names Sam D. Winter and Sam Stein can realign to identify their involvement in a murder?

As always, you can submit thoughts and questions to or by simply posting a comment to this blog.

And if you’d like some wine to go with your most deadly poison, Prime Stage Theatre’s production of Arsenic and Old Lace will be streaming via Broadway On Demand until May 29.

<<< Mr. Gibbs (Art DeConciliis) accepts a glass of elderberry wine from Martha Brewster (Suzanne Ward) in Prime Stage Theatre’s production of Arsenic and Old Lace.

New episodes of Mystery Theatre drop each Thursday. You can access the most recent installment by clicking the player below, or–if you missed any past episodes–you can find them all at the Prime Stage podcast directory.

Click play. I’ll meet you there.

This Week on Mystery Theatre:
The Case of the Rotating Portrait

May 17th, 2022

You study the girl in the portrait, her face askance, as if she is in the process of turning away from the viewer. Her skin is smooth, neck slender and adorned with a ribbon, head high and capped with a bonnet. You fix your gaze, study her until, in a blink, the portrait changes. The slender neck vanishes, and the ribbon that adorned it has become the thin-lipped grin of a face that now appears to be turning toward you. And the skin—no longer flawlessly smooth—appears wrinkled and creased.

In the blink of an eye, the young woman has become a crone, not because the painting itself has changed, but rather because your mind has deduced a new way of interpreting the details. And now, seeing the aged face hanging before you—you cannot imagine how you ever thought it could be anything else.

That’s from this week’s episode of Prime Stage Mystery Theatre’s “A Most Deadly Poison” (available May 19), in which the New Towne Players find themselves in a room decorated with two landscapes, a boar’s head trophy, and the bistable image of a face that may be either turning away or toward the viewer–it’s all a matter of perspective.

The image has a long history, first appearing on a German postcard in 1888. The artist was uncredited, and the image was soon copied by illustrators in France (above), Spain (at right) and the United States (below left).

It’s interesting how some of these anonymous artists took liberties with the original, with the French illustrator adding hands and a book and the Spanish artist giving the woman curly hair and a shawl. But it wasn’t until 1915 that British cartoonist W. E. Hill signed the work, passing it off as his own creation—or at least his own interpretation—in the November 6, 1915, issue of Puck, a popular humor magazine. (Hill’s illustration appears at the bottom of this post, alongside the 1888 original.)

Hill gives the woman her most complete make-over by adding an elaborate feathered hat and a fur coat, and his is the version that most people know. As a result, W. E. Hill is often cited as the work’s original artist.

Since then, new iterations have continued to appear, with cartoonist Ali Solomon giving the old woman a lit cigarette (below right) in a recent issue of The New Yorker Magazine. Thus, it’s not surprising that the second-person protagonist of “A Most Deadly Poison” thinks the woman looks familiar or that Joey the Intern reports seeing her on the Internet.

Interestingly, as you will notice in Act 3 of “A Most Deadly Poison” (available here on May 19), younger people tend to see the young woman first, whereas old folks see the crone. You can read more about that phenomenon in a recent Newsweek article by clicking here.

All of this brings us to the puzzle featured in Act III of “A Most Deadly Poison,” in which the New Towne Players find themselves at a dinner table set for a dozen strangers. The place card names are an odd mix. Some of the names have prefix titles (Ms. Ambertin, Mr. E. Thetas Hustle, Signora Titan, Dr. Werner). Two have middle initials (Alice C. Comp, Sam D. Winter). The rest are simply first and last names (Stew Ains, Randy Best, Art Beto, Sam Stein, Tim Vetchi, and Stan Wise). Naturally, since the puzzle addressed in Acts I and II centers on scrambled messages, the New Towne Players assume the names are anagrams.

And it seems as if the letters in eight of the names do in fact rearrange to spell roles that might be featured in a mystery story (the victim, the master sleuth, a witness, and so on). But four of the names are outliers, and one of them–printed on the place card for Ms. Ambertin–is positioned directly in front of the portrait of the woman with the turning face. Is there a connection?

Is it possible that a portrait capable of facing two different directions provides the clue needed to successfully rearrange the letters in Ms. Ambertin’s name?

That’s where we’ll leave things at the end of Act III, and it’s where the story will pick up when Act IV drops on May 26.

<<<The uncredited original from 1888 beside the W. E. Hill version from Puck Magazine, 6 Nov. 1915. 

If you have any thoughts as to how the letters in Ms. Ambertin’s name might be rearranged to link her to a murder plot, you can let us know with a note submitted via or by leaving a comment at the bottom of this post. As with many mysteries, the solution will seem obvious once you know what it is.

That’s it for today. I hope to have another Mystery Theatre update soon. For now, you can listen (or relisten) to the current episode and all past installments with your favorite podcast app or by simply going to the Prime Stage Mystery Theatre directory. Click the link. I’ll meet you there!