This delightfully subversive look at the Apocalypse and everything that went before is one of my favourite books.
Aziraphale, an angel, and Crowley, a demon, have been living on Earth since the beginning. Crowley, who starts out as the serpent in the Garden of Eden but has taken on human form, has “dark hair and good cheekbones”, dresses in black and drives a Bentley with a cassette player that plays only Best of Queen. Any cassette left in his car for long enough turns into Best of Queen. Aziraphale is the angel who stood at the entrance to the Garden of Eden with a flaming sword, which he gives to Adam and Eve when they are expelled: “They looked so cold, poor things…and what with the vicious animals out there and the storm coming up…”. He prides himself on his impeccable clothes and owns a rare books shop which is really a place for him to store the books. No sale is ever made and customers are persuaded quite quickly to leave.
Aziraphale and Crowley have grown quite fond of Earth and its inhabitants and have become, in a way, friends. “[Y]ou grew accustomed to the only other face that had been around more or less consistently for six millennia.” They have come to an Arrangement, in the way that “many isolated agents, working in conditions a long way from their superiors, reach with their opposite number when they realize that they have more in common with their immediate opponents then their remote allies.” It consists of not interfering in some of the other’s activities, ensuring that neither side lost but neither side won.
Of course, their respective Authorities (or Head Offices) have no idea of this. But as long as the work gets done, no one seems to care.
That is, until the arrival of the Antichrist. Crowley is summoned to collect the baby and deliver it to the hospital run by the nuns of the Chattering Order of Saint Beryl. The plan is to swap the Antichrist for the American ambassador’s baby, whose wife is supposed to be the only patient there. (The nuns are really Satanists, which explains their cooperation with the dark forces). Except that Mr. and Mrs. Young, an English couple, are also there, having their child. Sister Mary, to whom Crowley hands over the child, mistakes Mr. Young for the ambassador, so the wrong baby is swapped.
Because of the mix-up, the Antichrist, named Adam, has a perfectly normal childhood in a little English town called Tadfield, while Crowley and Aziraphale are keeping an eye on the wrong child. All is well until Adam turns 11. That’s when things are set in motion, and Crowley and Aziraphale have to do everything they can to avert the end of the world.
There is so much to enjoy in this book. Famine, one of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, is a popular dietician who invents a no-food diet. Death is straight out of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. He speaks in CAPITAL LETTERS and is somehow cool. (He is one of my favourite characters in Discworld, so I’m biased.) The hellhound, sent to Earth to find his master (11-year-old Adam, who has no idea of the events unfolding around him), has glowing red eyes and a “low, rumbling snarl of spring-coiled menace” but changes shape when Adam announces that his dog will be a bright, small mongrel called Dog. In a flash, a terrifying beast turns into a friendly—and rather surprised—pet.
The writing is brilliant—funny, sharp and observant, but then you expect nothing less from Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. Aziraphale and Crowley meet in St. James Park by the pond, where they can be unobserved. They talk as they feed the ducks, who are old hands at this. “The ducks in St. James’ Park are so used to being fed bread by secret agents meeting clandestinely that they have developed their own Pavlovian reaction. Put a St. James duck in a laboratory cage and show it a picture of two men—one usually wearing a coat with a fur collar, the other something sombre with a scarf—and it’ll look up expectantly.” Someone has the voice “the colour of an old raincoat”, and a computer has the “intelligence of a retarded ant”.
If you haven’t read this book yet, then you will love discovering it. If you have, then you know what I’m talking about.
Note: BBC made an excellent six-part series of the book with inspired casting: David Tennant as Crowley and Michael Sheen as Aziraphale.