People of Plano: Pulmonologist turned mystery novelist Ken Toppell

Ken Toppell. Photography by Hunter Lacey
Nolan Herbert is a murderous, crossword-loving, power-hungry businessman. Henry Atkinson is a lonely lawyer in search of an estranged relative. Murders pile up in the Pentecostal church in the world created for ‘Perfect for a night in’ by Ken Toppell, Plano's murder mystery novelist.

Nolan Herbert is a murderous, crossword-loving, power-hungry businessman. Henry Atkinson is a lonely lawyer in search of an estranged relative. Murders pile up in the Pentecostal church. Atkinson’s family keeps finding themselves at the center of the town’s scandal and murder investigations. Herbert, Atkinson, murder and more are all part of a world created by Ken Toppell, our neighborhood murder mystery novelist. 

Toppell didn’t start his career writing books. A history buff, he graduated from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill in 1963, followed by medical school at Emory University and a residency at Baylor College of Medicine. 

Due to the Vietnam War, Toppell began his fellowship year after he was drafted into the Army at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio. There, he established the first Army Intensive Care Unit and treated a princess, a famous singer, a basketball player and other prominent figures while studying pulmonology. 

“I was the senior resident of medicine there [at Baylor College of Medicine], and I just thought it was magic. It was incredible,” Toppell says. “Then when I got in the Army, we built the first ICU at Brooke Army Medical Center … we had such a great staff that it really had me going.”

Though he continued working in pulmonary medicine for over 40 years after leaving the Army, he never quit his passions in history and writing. 

While working as a doctor, Toppell used to take time off to give lectures in American history through unique and uncommonly known angles. He took this passion for history and wrote a memoir of his first year as a doctor in reference to historical events that happened in 1969.

Though Toppell loved writing and storytelling, he initially didn’t intend to be published. He wrote his first story while waiting for his son to finish his first college interviews. 

“It was completely silly. It was republished in an anthology of medical humor with my made-up disease, and they paid me $300 for it,” Toppell says. “That was what really got to me, and after that I did a lot of writing.”

After retiring and moving to Plano nearly five years ago, Toppell wrote his first novel, Second Cousin Once Removed, while attempting to stay out of his wife’s hair as she was decorating their new house. 

“It was fun because murder mysteries are like puzzles,” Toppell says. “They have red flags that tell you something about the characters. They might not help you solve the mystery, but they tell you more about a character’s development.”

The book turned into a series following the Atkinson family as they encounter murder and mystery in Second Cousin Once Removed; The Perfect Trifecta; The Darkness of Daylight; Good Friends, Family, and Murder; There Weren’t Any Spider Webs; and 9 Down Is Dead. 

“I miss them when I’m not writing. Even when I’m writing about them I miss them. After six books, you’re going to get that kind of relationship,” he says.

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