Man of Mystery
Combining his knowledge of surveying and his passion for writing. Norman Van Valkenburgh has penned a series of thrilling whodunits about mayhem in the mountains.
Master of Mystery
Norman J. Van Valkenburgh, land surveyor turned novelist, creates tales of trails and betrayals
by Leon Freilich
Photographs by Dion Ogust
In his first novel, Murder in the Catskills, published 13 years ago, Norman Van Valkenburgh promised, ¡°A murder and a mystery with a bit of history.¡± He has kept that promise in three more acclaimed whodunits. Today at 75, he is busily working on his fifth and sixth.
In his off-white, two-story townhouse a mile south of Saugerties, in Ulster County, Van Valkenburgh, who was once the highest-ranking land surveyor in the state¡¯s Department of Environmental Conservation, writes his contemporary stories featuring surveyor-turned-sleuth Ward Eastman. The mysteries leave the critics panting, as if they¡¯d just climbed Slide Mountain. ¡°Knowing the terrain as only a good surveyor can, Van Valkenburgh has filled his novel with a wonderful assortment of true Catskill detail,¡± wrote one. ¡°He knows how the forests that blanket our mountains look and feel when walking through them at different seasons.¡±
Somehow during his career as a land surveyor, including 32 years at the DEC, Van Valkenburgh has also found the time to write a dozen nonfiction books about the Catskills and Adirondacks. He even penned a children¡¯s book illustrated by his son, Russell.
How did he find the time? In an aw-shucks response, Van Valkenburgh says, ¡°I knew all the stuff, so it was fairly simple to write them.¡±
In Mayhem in the Catskills, Eastman solves a locked-room mystery in a remote cabin in the central Catskills; Mischief in the Catskills has Eastman taking on the case of a hunter missing in the woods for years; and in Murder in the Shawangunks, Eastman investigates the death of a fellow surveyor who fell from a craggy cliff.
Van Valkenburgh¡¯s fictional skills are the result of a lifetime of reading mysteries. ¡°As a boy, growing up on a farm in West Kill [Greene County], I¡¯d read a Hardy Boys book a day. I used to finish reading under a blanket with a flashlight. My mother was always saying, ¡®Don¡¯t take that flashlight to bed!¡¯ ¡±
In his teens, he graduated to Sherlock Holmes stories. After devouring library copies, he took to buying all manner of Holmesiana. Today, bookshelves in his basement are filled with 1,000 Sherlock Holmes books, including parodies and pastiches, old radio shows, translations, scrapbooks, and other works by Holmes¡¯ creator, Arthur Conan Doyle. Also on display are Holmes¡¯ clothes ¡ª the houndstooth coat with attached cape, deerstalker cap, magnifying glass, and calabash pipe. The outfit actually fits the trim Van Valkenburgh, who wore it once to a literary conference. Attendees lined up to hear him say, ¡°The game¡¯s afoot, Watson.¡±
Conan Doyle based Holmes on one of his medical school professors, Joseph Bell, who could deduce a great deal about his patients just by observing them. ¡°I conceived my Ward Eastman the same way,¡± says Van Valkenburgh. ¡°I based him on a man I went to work for in 1955, Edward West. In my 33 years with Ed, I argued with him a lot. It wasn¡¯t until after his death, in 1988, that I realized how special he¡¯d been.
¡°Ed was a learned individual who enjoyed helping younger woodsmen. I headed Ed¡¯s Catskill survey crew, and whenever we worked in the woods, he¡¯d have a story about the area; it was really a history lesson. When he went to Albany, I went along, though unwillingly. It was going to be office work, and I knew I¡¯d miss the outdoors. But I did get to hear more of Ed¡¯s fascinating observations of the land and stories about the people on it.
¡°Later, I realized Ed was my mentor. In my books, people ask Ward the same questions I used to ask Ed, and people later asked me.¡± Although Van Valkenburgh never describes Eastman¡¯s physical appearance, the sleuth and West are obviously related. ¡°I took the Ward out of Edward, changed West to East, and got Ward Eastman,¡± he says.
Armed with an unusual detective and his intimate knowledge of the Catskills, Van Valkenburgh had no trouble morphing into a mystery writer. In fact, he¡¯d been a budding wordsmith since his school days. ¡°Augusta Hare Shultis, my seventh-grade English teacher at the Hunter-Tannersville Central School, told me I wrote well,¡± he recalls. ¡°She was critical, but told my mother how much she liked what I wrote. That was all I needed to hear.
¡°Then in college, in Maine, I was in a freshman English class that featured what was called the Monday Groans. Everyone had to write a 500-word theme in 45 minutes. I loved it.¡±
With a wife, Dorothy, and new child to support, he left college after three years when a position opened at the DEC. ¡°One of my jobs was to go out and look at every one of these pieces of land we were buying, so I got to see all of the state. Word got around that I was good at writing. So I was assigned to write DEC reports, one of which told the story of establishing the Adirondack Park and Forest Preserve. I expanded that to write a history of the Adirondack Forest Preserve. So many researchers called for copies, the DEC decided to publish it.¡± The book, The Adirondack Forest Preserve: A Chronology, is still often used as a research document.
Although writing has usually come easily to Van Valkenburgh, one volume caused him considerable personal anguish. ¡°As a boy, my only ambition was to become a sergeant in the Marines,¡± he says. ¡°At 17, I enlisted, and in my four years in the corps achieved that goal. That ambition somehow passed down to my daughter.
¡°Airilee enlisted in the Women¡¯s Marine Corps and put in two years. Later, she married and had a daughter. Ten years ago, when she was 42, she suddenly died. No cause was ever found. It was heartbreaking.¡±
While going through her belongings, the family found the manuscript of a mystery Airilee had been working on. ¡°It¡¯s set in the Mountain Top part of Greene County, with a woman bookshop owner returning for the 25th anniversary of her high school graduation,¡± says Van Valkenburgh. ¡°There¡¯s murder, robbery, suicide, you name it. The manuscript was rough, so I edited it and got it published as a novella. Her name¡¯s on it, Airilee Ellyn Blessing.¡± The novella, Class of ¡¯68, appears in the same volume as Murder in the Shawangunks.
These days, Van Valkenburgh still walks in his beloved Catskills and returns often to Greene County. ¡°I always go alone, but now it¡¯s just day trips,¡± he says. He never hunted or fished. ¡°The land¡¯s enough for me.¡±
In the book he¡¯s writing now, Murder at the Streamside, someone disappears in the Catskills¡¯ Millbrook Valley, where during a survey Ward Eastman finds a grave on the boundary line he¡¯s running.
¡°I¡¯m pretty sure things will fall into place,¡± he says. ¡°Ward knows what he¡¯s doing.¡± ¡ö
Norman J. Van Valkenburgh¡¯s novels are published by Purple Mountain Press in Fleischmanns, Delaware County.