Murder and Memoir: The Writing of Poe Ballantine

Author Poe Ballantine’s new offering combines heartfelt memoir and an intriguing murder mystery.


| January 2014


Drawing comparisons to the writing of Mark Twain and Truman Capote, Poe Ballantine’s newest work, Love and Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere (Hawthorne Books, 2013) is part memoir and part murder mystery. Set mostly in Ballantine’s adopted home of Chadron, Nebraska, this new novel traces the nomadic and despondent lifestyle that led the author to the small high plains town, where eventually fame and family caught up. This excerpt—the introduction and first two chapters—offers the intrigue of a small-town murder before establishing the state of life for Poe Ballantine.

The Journey of Poe Ballantine

Jeanne (pronounced Gee-knee) Goetzinger, my employer for close to four years, called me on the phone on March 9, 2006, with news that our missing math professor had finally been found. Jeanne’s hotel, The Olde Main Street Inn, is right next to police headquarters and because you can cross-reference or background check any resident of this rumorous rural town at her Longbranch Saloon, I call it Grapevine Substation #1.

I lived just three blocks east of the Olde Main Street Inn, on First Street, right along the railroad tracks. I was looking out the window when Jeanne called. A train carrying lumber was passing slowly by. Jeanne told me in a thrilled hush she’d just received word that Professor Steven Haataja (pronounced Hahde-ya) had been found bound and dead in a ditch. That was all the information she had but she would call me back when there was more. 

Two hours later she called again. The body was burned and bound, not recognizable as a man or woman, she amended, and they were doing some tests to determine its identity.

Fascinated by, and sympathetic to, the unusual details of Steven’s baffling disappearance more than three months before, I had undertaken a book on the subject, which had also afforded me the opportunity to discuss my very quiet but quirky Western Nebraska town and some of its exotic characters. I had no idea the story would turn out like this.

“Who else could it be?” I said, unable to imagine how such a thing might have happened.