THE DARK DAYS OF HAMBURGER HALPIN by Josh Berk

It was a dark, gloomy class field trip. Because it was in a coal mine.

The star quarterback swore as he fell to the bottom of a mine shaft. Probably. Being deaf, Will Halpin could only guess about the cursing. But silent or not, Pat Chambers’s deadly tumble was definitely foul play.

Hefty, deaf, and the new guy in school, Will isn’t exactly a candidate for instant popularity. The beautiful girl in his class isn’t going to notice him anytime soon. But Will is a pro at reading lips, and he’s privy to a lot of dirt.

So when he teams up with the only guy in school less popular than he is to figure out what happened in that mine, Will discovers that suspects with motives to kill obnoxious Pat are many. The too-sexy-for-calculus math teacher? The crackpot bus driver? The sad prom queen?

The Hardy Boys they’re not. But nobody else at Carbon High has the smarts to solve this crime, or is dorky enough to don a fake beard in pursuit of the truth.

Review

A lot of the time, it seems like the more lighthearted books don’t get enough credit. The Dark Days of Hamburger Halpin reminds me just how messed up that is–because even though it deals with murder, deafness, and bullying, it’s definitely a lighthearted book.

And sometimes, that’s exactly what you need.

For some people, the major selling point of this book will be Will himself. He’s fun and quirky, and he manages to make just about any situation amusing. He’s also the new kid ditching an all-deaf school to integrate into a mainstream high school, and people aren’t exactly tripping over themselves to include him. As he adjusts, he keeps a notebook of observations about this new world he’s immersed himself in–and they’re pretty great.

Take, for example, his notes on his new bus driver. As he drives his route, said bus driver chows down on a huge bag of pork rinds and mumbles bizarre rhymes to himself. Will, the second-best lip reader at his old school, is delighted at this turn of events. When he sees the bus driver mutter stuff like “Joke the mole, smoke a bowl,” Will commemorates this in his notebook: JIMMY PORKRINDS = ADDLED POTHEAD OR GIFTED LYRICIST?

Once he gets to school, Will has plenty more material for his notebook. The other kids seem to forget he’s there, so it’s a good thing he’s not into blackmail–he picks up all sorts of scandalous tidbits on the people around him. In fact, once the school jerk–excuse me, jock–is murdered on the school field trip, Will’s got enough dirt to piece together the likely suspects.

Enter Devon, a cop’s son with a thing for the Hardy Boys. Devon’s got a robust vocabulary and a decent grasp of sign language, and he’s the only kid at school willing to give Will a chance–possibly because he’s the only kid less popular than Will. When the two team up to solve their classmate’s murder, they actually play off each other well. Between Will’s wise-guy sarcasm and Devon’s dated, gentlemanly mannerisms, the duo has a fun odd-couple feel going on.

Besides Will, I’d say the highlight of the book is his sense of humor. It’s full of witty asides, self-deprecating jokes, and wry observations of the world around him. I laughed out loud several times, and at the end of the day, I can’t ask for much more from a book.

Will’s deafness was handled beautifully, too. It’s referenced enough that you never forget about it, but not so often that you feel beat over the head with it. Being deaf is part of being Will Halpin, but it doesn’t define being Will Halpin. Alternate forms of communication, like sign language, written notes, and text messages were integrated smoothly, without getting gimmicky or tiresome. By the end of the book, I also felt like I had a better understanding of deafness, but I never felt like I’d been lectured to. Always a plus.

My only complaint about the book is that sometimes the plot felt a little all over the place–almost like it couldn’t decide what it wanted to be. At the beginning, it seemed like it was going to focus on social issues: besides his disability, Will’s also overweight, and he and Devon both dealt with some bullying. Then the plot shifted, and Will learned about a local miner–also deaf, also named Will Halpin–who died in a cave-in a century ago. Weird coincidence, right? It seems like family drama/intrigue and possibly a ghost plot thread are brewing, but in the end, that particular story element is mostly dumped for the murder plotline. Which wasn’t a bad thing, but it never seemed clear why the other-Will-Halpin subplot was introduced in the first place.

All in all, it’s a fun, light read. I figure this one will appeal to fans of humor, amateur sleuth mysteries, and Rick Yancey’s Alfred Kropp series. If it sounds like your kind of thing, check it out on Goodreads.

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