Act of Oblivion by Robert Harris

In 1660 a group of men were hanged until they were not quite dead. They were taken down, alive, and then castrated. Their entrails were pulled out in great, looping coils and burned in front of them. Their hearts were plucked from their chests. Finally, they were beheaded and cut into quarters. Their crime? They killed a king.

The newly restored monarch, Charles II, was pragmatic. He issued a blanket pardon known as the Act of Oblivion to those who fought for Parliament in the Civil Wars, but it came with one principal exception. Those men responsible for killing his father were to be hunted down and executed in the grisly manner reserved for traitors.

The manhunt for the regicides is the basis for this gripping thriller by Robert Harris. He largely follows the history, sticking with the real characters, timeline and locations. The story is told from three perspectives: two real regicides, and an invented regicide-catcher named Richard Nayler.

The execution of Charles I, circa 1649.

Nayler is in the employ of Sir Edward Hyde, the new king’s lord chancellor. In Harris’s version, Nayler tracks down the warrant for the king’s death. It carries 59 fateful signatures: 38 of these men are still alive, and Charles II wants them publicly executed for treason. Even death is insufficient protection from the monarch’s wrath. Nayler is ordered to dig up the putrid remains of Oliver Cromwell and two other regicides. In front of happy crowds, the corpses are hanged by the neck and then beheaded.

Once Nayler has dealt with the imprisoned and the dead, he turns his attention to the living. Some of the regicides have fled to Europe and beyond. In America, we follow two of them as they arrive, penniless and exhausted, at the home of sympathetic Puritans. Colonel Edward (Ned) Whalley is Cromwell’s cousin. A veteran of the wars, and Cromwell’s confidant, he was once at the heart of the Protectorate. His companion, Colonel William Goffe, is married to Ned’s daughter, Frances.

Their entrails were pulled out in great, looping coils and burned in front of them. Their hearts were plucked from their chests. Their crime? They killed a king.

Ned and Will live as fugitives in this new land. They are passed from safe house to safe house. They sometimes live on the land, almost naked and ridden with lice. Ned, watching Will trying to spear a fish, thinks: “We are Christian gentlemen no longer. We have turned into savages, save we lack their bodily grace and competence.”

As their penitential roaming through America stretches into years, Will’s austere Puritan faith deepens. He is convinced that 1666 will bring the coming of Christ. For Ned, the beating heart of this novel, doubts set in. He writes a memoir of his days at Cromwell’s right hand, and begins to question all his former certainties about providence and God’s purpose. Maybe he wasn’t always on the side of the angels? Meanwhile, Nayler pursues them obsessively.

Act of Oblivion is a belter of a thriller. It will be compulsive reading for those who loved An Officer and a Spy, Harris’s book about the Dreyfus affair. Like that novel, the research is immaculate. A chewy, morally murky slice of history is made into a tale that twists and surprises. The characters are strong and we care about their predicament. The story stretches over continents and years, but the suspense feels as taut as if the three main characters were locked in a room with a gun.

Antonia Senior is a book critic for The Times of London and the author of several novels, including Treason’s Daughter and The Tyrant’s Shadow