The Dark Days of Hamburger Halpin by Josh Berk – Review by Brett Vogelsinger
Some books have a what I consider a “cover identity crisis.” Covers communicate mood and genre and setting — and then there are those covers that confound. The Dark Days of Hamburger Halpin is one such book with a confouding cover. In hardcover, it features three cartoon-art friends, tiptoeing forward in what first appears to be a Hardy-Boys-ish sleuthing story for tweens. In paperback, the cover is a brooding, black-and-white shot of an adolescent walking away from us down a railroad track. It leave you thinking, “Why yes, those days must be dark!” But don’t let the cover(s) fool you. In some ways, the book is neither a typical detective story nor a piece of realistic teen fiction, and in other ways it is both. Part of what I love most about The Dark Days of Hamburger Halpin is its ability to dabble in a little bit of everything.
The protagonist, Will (Hamburger) Halpin, so-called because of his struggles with his weight, happens to be deaf and attending a public school for the first time. Naturally, there are insecurities and challenges involved in leaving a school for the deaf and integrating with the general student population, and this is not lost on author Josh Berk. The beginning of the book focuses on these early struggles and triumphs as we watch Will make his first friend in the new school, a boy who knows some sign language and communicates with Will mostly electronically. The book is filled with digital dialogue between Will and his newfound buddy that feels authentic and is fun to read. We also first learn of Will’s penchant for eavesdropping, for unbeknownst to those around him, he is able to read lips.
If all of this sounds a little bit like Wonder, there are similarities, and some genuinely touching scenes such as when Will takes out his frustrations on a “Deaf Child” sign near his house. But Will has wit and snark that makes him closer to a character John Green might create than R. J. Palacio. Josh Berk knows how to write humor that feels realistic and crisp, and part of what makes Will such a lovable narrator is the way his sense of humor contributes to his resilience.
And then there is the murder.
While the covers may have led you to believe this was a book about a few friendly misfits finding each other or a young man’s introspective quest to find himself (or at least the end of the train tracks) the plot takes an unexpected swerve into a murder mystery, and such a wild, wonderful swerve it is. The murder happens on a field trip to a coal mine and first appears to be an accident. And as Will and his friend work to uncover the truth, they find one or two more juicy scandals than they bargained for.
As a mystery novel, it covers familiar themes of the genre such as “appearances can be deceiving,” but as Will’s research into his family’s genealogy intertwines with the more murderous mystery afoot, the book plumbs deeper waters too, examining how our roots affect us, the costs and benefits of escaping the world, and what it means to be mainstream.
I love this book because it is fun. It blends so much of what I enjoy in a Sherlock Holmes story with the humor of a Gordon Korman book — it sounds like it shouldn’t work, but it does, and marvelously! The characters are realistic, the mystery is dark, the twist is unexpected, and the humor is effusive. It’s the perfect book for when you just don’t know what you are in the mood for reading. The confounding cover is just the beginning of the adventure.
Brett Vogelsinger is a ninth-grade English teacher at Holicong Middle School in Doylestown, PA. He loves spending time in the garden, shopping for books to add to his classroom library and spending time with his family. He leads his school literary magazine www.sevenateninemagazine.blogspot.com.