“Second Cousin Once Removed” by UNC alumnus Dr. Kenneth Toppell is the first in what he hopes to be a series of chilling, sarcastic murder mysteries. Photo courtesy of Toppell.
When Dr. Kenneth Toppell graduated UNC-Chapel Hill in 1963, he began an education and career in pulmonology. In his retirement, Toppell is exploring his passion for writing which brought the September release of his book, “Second Cousin Once Removed.”
“The last time I wrote was for The Daily Tar Heel in 1961,” Toppell said. “When I had time, I started writing again; but this time, fiction.”
“Second Cousin Once Removed” is the first in what Toppell hopes to be a series of chilling, sarcastic murder mysteries. The main character Henry Atkinson, a divorcee and semi-retired attorney, embarks on a mission for justice when his family tree research leads him to discover the antics of his serial killer second cousin once removed, Shelley.
“They have their own life experiences, which are polar opposites of each other, and yet they find a way to work together,” Toppell said.
Toppell’s inspiration for this book came from figuring out his own family tree about six years ago in honor of his youngest granddaughter.
“In doing so, things stick in your mind,” Toppell said. “One of those things was just the phrase ‘second cousin once removed.’”
Aside from this title and plot inspiration, Toppell loves murder mysteries and has always wanted to write. However, his background includes degrees in history and political science and 48 years of writing in medicine.
“I was a physician for most of my life, and I was pretty good at it,” Toppell said. “But writing fiction is a completely different world.”
Like any writer, Toppell’s process is unique to his own style.
“I try to write as if you and I are having a conversation,” Toppell said. “I sit down at my computer and I think of what two people are talking about, and I go from there.”
Toppell also took from his experience traveling the country to write this mystery. He said part of the story took Henry cross-country to escape his serial killer relative, Shelley.
“I’ve been to all 50 states, and I use that in the book in terms of Henry running,” Toppell said. “I use my knowledge of something from every state to move my story along.”
Toppell said his inspiration for writing murder mysteries comes from his guilty pleasure of reading them. He hopes his audience can enjoy his work for its humor and lack of gruesome elements.
“I hope they enjoy it,” Toppell said. “It’s a murder mystery, so it’s kind of tongue-in-cheek.”
His advice to young authors comes partially from advice given to him during his time at the DTH. He said finding your voice and writing as much as possible are important steps to writing a book.
“Write, write write,” Toppell said. “If you read good [books] and you figure out how they’re written, that’s the best advice I can give. I also write in a way that sounds correct when you read it out loud, I think that’s very important.”
One such young author, first-year Haleigh Cooper, said she is in a similar situation as Toppell was in the '60s. She is a prospective advertising and public relations student with a love for storytelling.
“I like how writing gives me a different perspective than I have in my own life by putting myself in other peoples’ positions,” Cooper said. “It’s important to think about the world critically while building these worlds.”
Toppell said that good writing can only get you so far. Perhaps the most daunting step of his writing process is the last one.
“I write, and then I hope,” Toppell said.
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.