I’m back

Vejlby Kirke, Vejlby Sogn, Jutland

It’s been a very, very long time since I last posted anything on this blog, and even longer – seven years – since I’ve written a book. On both counts, that owes to all sorts of matters, great and small, pleasant and unpleasant, unavoidable and too-damned-easily-avoidable-if-I-had-any-common-sense. A new marriage (well, “new” in the sense that I got remarried right after Whites of Their Eyes came out in the summer of 2011). That’s one of the good things. A new agent. Very heavy involvement in local commemorations of the WWI centennial. Disruptions at my university, mostly stemming from fiscal irresponsibility under a previous administration. And spending as much time as I can afford, raising a young boy – now eleven on the cusp of twelve, a newly-minted Boy Scout. Because I’m in my fifties, and because I have grown kids, too – grown kids who grew up at a distance from me – I know all too well how quickly childhood goes. I’m bound and determined to make Alex’s childhood last as long as I possibly can. Without being weird, that is.
Mostly, though, I’ve been working a lot but without any concrete results, or at least many results that I’m happy with. I did research and co-design a pretty awesome (conscious plug, here) museum exhibit on Dayton in the First World War. That was a lot of fun, and I’m proud of it. But I’ve also pitched ideas for a dozen different books, and none of those ideas bore fruit.
But now I’m back. Different agent, different editor, different press. And I’ve got two books in the works. I’ll keep you apprised of my progress as I go along, bit by bit. The first, and the biggest, is something of a departure for me, because it’s a big project compacted into a relatively small space. FIREPOWER: MILITARY TECHNOLOGY AND THE ART OF WAR, 1400-1945 will be published by Basic Books, coming out in print at the very end of 2019. I’m excited about it, in large part because it’s a subject I’ve been teaching for twenty-five years. The basic (ahem!) drift of the book will be the relationship between weapons and non-weapon technologies and the ways in which armies (and navies, and air forces) fight wars, from the gunpowder “revolution” at the close of the Middle Ages to WWII and the dawn of the atomic age. It’s a topic that receives relatively little attention from military historians, and absolutely no attention from non-military historians. I’ll be addressing different aspects of the book as I go along, just to give you a taste of what I’m doing, but for now suffice it to say that I plan to rain on several parades…one of the delights of doing history. It probably won’t go into enough detail on weapons history (a favorite subject of mine) to satisfy arms geeks, and probably too much detail on weapons to satisfy folks who like reading sweeping accounts of individual campaigns and commanders. But, hopefully, it’ll be just right for the many, many people in-between. More to come!
That’s the first project, or at least the bigger project. The second project is actually closer to completion. Some thirteen years ago, when The Drillmaster of Valley Forge was just an idea I was tossing around, I had just finished my (then) last book in Scandinavian history, a study of Denmark from the time of the Protestant Reformation to the beginnings of absolute monarchy – the period when Denmark was as powerful and influential as it would ever be. And in the six-month interval in between the time I finished the Denmark book and the time I started Drillmaster, I wrote another book…which I promptly stowed on my hard drive and then forgot entirely about.
Thanks to a Danish friend of mine – the prolific and very talented Dr. Kim Wagner, of Queen Mary University of London – I decided to dust off this manuscript, tweak it a little, and get it ready for publication. I’m almost done with that now. It’s an unusual but gripping story, very familiar to many Danes but not familiar to Americans, because…well, because it’s Danish. It’s also entirely different from anything I’ve ever written before, even if it comes the closest to the kind of history I’ve always wanted to write.
The working title of the new Danish book is Days of Wrath, and it tells the compelling but grim story of Søren Jensen Quist, a Lutheran parson of a parish in rural Denmark, in a village called Vejlby. In 1607, a peasant who worked for Parson Quist disappeared, suddenly and without a trace. Popular gossip held that Quist was somehow responsible, even though there was no physical evidence – or any evidence, for that matter – that Quist had anything to do with the man’s disappearance, or that a crime had even taken place. But over the years, a number of people who held grudges against Quist found reason to revive the rumors, and in 1625, eighteen years after the alleged crime, Quist found himself formally charged with murder. Despite the lack of evidence, three subsequent trials – including one before the king of Denmark himself – found Quist guilty, and in the summer of 1626 Søren Jensen Quist was beheaded for murder.
Flash forward seven years, and Quist’s grown son, still grieving for his father, yearning to follow in his footsteps, and thirsting for revenge, managed to get the case re-opened. He convinced local authorities of his father’s innocence, and with their assistance he revealed something very ugly: that his father’s enemies had committed judicial murder, silencing witnesses who could have exonerated Quist and purchasing false witnesses to condemn him. In a series of trials in 1633-34, the two leading witnesses – men who claimed to have seen or heard the “crime” first-hand – confessed that they had been paid to present fabricated testimony. They ultimately paid with their lives. But the men who used them, especially a county lawman who orchestrated the entire miscarriage of justice, went free.
It’s a very Scandinavian story, and has a lot in common with the kind of Scandi-noir drama/police procedurals that have become surprisingly popular in the United States (think The Bridge, The Killing, and even The Tunnel, which was inspired by The Bridge): bleak, dark, without a happy ending. Uncertain, too. One of the most charming things about the story of the parson of Vejlby (charming from an author’s perspective, that is) is that it just doesn’t come to a finite conclusion. All the available evidence seems to suggest, overwhelmingly, that Parson Quist was innocent. But three successive trials, involving some of Denmark’s most learned jurists, and in venues that should have been friendly towards a member of the clergy, found Quist guilty anyway. For a modern audience, that should automatically raise some red flags: was there anything that these people saw, or heard, or felt, that we don’t see in the now four-centuries-old paper trail? Was there something that was obvious about the case that we cannot see at all? Could it be that – no matter how innocent he looks to us today – that the parson of Vejlby was actually guilty of murder?
Over the next few months, I’ll be revealing little bits of the story, just to whet your appetite, and then I’ll move on to the FIREPOWER book. See you next week!
Man, it feels good to be back to work.

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