Promise Not to Tell

Promise Not to Tell

3.9 251
by Jennifer McMahon

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Forty-one-year-old school nurse Kate Cypher has returned home to rural Vermont to care for her mother who's afflicted with Alzheimer's. On the night she arrives, a young girl is murdered—a horrific crime that eerily mirrors another from Kate's childhood. Three decades earlier, her dirt-poor friend Del—shunned and derided by classmates as "Potato

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Forty-one-year-old school nurse Kate Cypher has returned home to rural Vermont to care for her mother who's afflicted with Alzheimer's. On the night she arrives, a young girl is murdered—a horrific crime that eerily mirrors another from Kate's childhood. Three decades earlier, her dirt-poor friend Del—shunned and derided by classmates as "Potato Girl"—was brutally slain. Del's killer was never found, while the victim has since achieved immortality in local legends and ghost stories. Now, as this new murder investigation draws Kate irresistibly in, her past and present collide in terrifying, unexpected ways. Because nothing is quite what it seems . . . and the grim specters of her youth are far from forgotten.

More than just a murder mystery, Jennifer McMahon's extraordinary debut novel, Promise Not to Tell, is a story of friendship and family, devotion and betrayal—tautly written, deeply insightful, beautifully evocative, and utterly unforgettable.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Part mystery-thriller and part ghost story, McMahon's well-paced debut alternates smoothly between past and present. In the fall of 2002, 41-year-old Kate Cypher, a divorced Seattle school nurse, returns to New Hope, the decaying Vermont hippie commune where she grew up, to visit her elderly mother, Jean, who's suffering from Alzheimer's. Kate has avoided New Hope since the grizzly, unsolved murder of her fifth-grade friend, Del Griswold, 31 years earlier. Kate fears she betrayed Del, a free-spirited farm girl. Did her betrayal cause Del's death? Who killed Del? Another local girl is murdered in a similar manner at the time of Kate's return. Could the killer be loose again? Meanwhile, Jean appears to be possessed with Del's spirit and may have the answers to these questions. As Kate investigates, she learns stunning truths about many events and people from her youth. McMahon does a particularly good job of portraying the cruelty of school children. (Apr.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Kirkus Reviews
Ghost sightings and a copycat murder cause residents of a small town to revisit a 30-year-old crime. Narrator Kate Cyphers, a middle-aged Seattle school nurse, returns in November 2002 to the Vermont hippie commune where she was raised. She's there to look in on her elderly mother, who suffers from Alzheimer's. But the night she arrives, a teenaged girl is murdered in exactly the manner Kate's childhood friend Del was killed three decades earlier. Interspersed chapters flash back to 1971, when Kate first met Del, who lived on a dilapidated farm with her abusive father and her older brother Nicky. Kate became close to Del, but she didn't dare be openly friendly toward someone taunted by the more popular students as "Potato Girl." Back in 2002, both Nicky and 12-year-old Opal, the dwindling commune's sole remaining child, tell Kate that they have seen visions of Del and think her ghost may be behind the new killing. Meanwhile, Kate's mother is acting stranger than usual, stealing off in the night and referencing things that only Del could have known. The most definitive link between the two murders is a section of skin cut from each of the victims' chests; only Kate knows that Del had the letter M tattooed on that spot. Clues point variously to Zack Messier, a former commune member who had affairs with Del, Nicky and Kate's mother; to Mike Shane, a classmate who once wrote love notes to Del and now owns a tattoo parlor; and to Ron Mackenzie, the old school-bus driver who, though incoherent, seems to know more than he should. And we start to wonder about Kate when her Swiss Army Knife turns out to have been used to slit a cat's throat-especially since she told us on the novel's first pagethat she'd just killed someone. Well-plotted suspenseful fun.
"This assured, ambitious debut novel offers an unusual mix of mystery novel and ghost story..."
Today Show
"A great, dark, spooky book for the summer."
Sara Gruen
"Deeply disturbing and darkly compelling..."
Pam Lewis
"PROMISE NOT TO TELL takes you through the twisted world of adolescent friendship, betrayal and murder."

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HarperCollins Publishers
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Promise Not to Tell A Novel

By Jennifer McMahon Harper Copyright © 2007 Jennifer McMahon
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-06-114331-1

Chapter One Late April, 1971

"Tough it," she said.

"No way. Gross."

"I dare you."

"No way. God, what happened to its eyes?"

"Pecked out, I guess. Or just dried up and fell out."

"Sick." I shivered. Partly from the cold breeze, partly from the idea of those eyes. It was early spring. The ground below us was thick mud, still half frozen. The week before we'd had the last snowstorm of the season and there were still patches of it clinging to the ground, melting in pools and rivers across the lumpy field.

"Come on, Kate, you gotta do what I say. When you're at my house, I make the rules. You were the one caught trespassing. I could have you arrested. Or get my daddy to come out here with his shotgun. Now touch it!"

"I will if you will."

Del's pale face contorted into a smile. She reached out and stroked the dead bird, starting at its head and moving her fingers with their dirty nails all the way back to its tail feathers. Her touch seemed almost loving-like the bird was her pet parakeet, a creature she'd named and fed. A bird whose song she knew by heart. Some Tweety Bird, Polly-Want-a-Cracker kind of pet.

The putrid crow swung heavy on its wire. She gave it a shove, making it fly toward me. It was as if Del and I were playing some sick game of tetherball. I jumped back. She laughed, throwing back her head with its stringy blond hair. She opened her mouth wide and I noticed that her right front tooth was chipped. Just a little corner was missing, not something you'd notice unless you were looking.

The crow swung, its left foot wrapped and tied with white plastic-covered wire-tougher than string, Del explained. It dangled about three feet from the top of a tall wooden stake driven into the center of the small field where uneven rows of green peas were just coming up. Smaller wooden stakes lined the rows, and rusty wire mesh was stapled to the stakes, forming a trellis for the peas to climb.

Del said her brother Nicky had shot the crow two weeks before. He caught it pecking the pea seeds up out of the dirt before they'd even had a chance to sprout and got it with his BB gun. Then he and his daddy hung the crow up just like they did each year, a warning to other crows to stay away.

I reached out and touched the greasy black feathers of its ragged wing. Bugs crawled there, working their way under the feathers and into the flesh. Metallic green flies buzzed in the air. Although dead, the bird pulsed with life. It stank like old hamburger left in the sun. Like the raccoon my mother once found under our porch back in Massachusetts, way back under the floorboards where no one could reach it. It just had to rot there. My mother sprinkled quicklime through the cracks in the porch floor, letting it fall down onto the bloated corpse like Christmas snow. For weeks the smell permeated the porch, worked its way into windows and open doors, hung on our clothes, skin, and hair. There's nothing like the smell of death. There's no mistaking it.

I had been crossing the Griswolds' fields on my way home from school every day for nearly a month on the afternoon Del caught me and took me to see the crow. I had been hoping to run into her. Hoping, actually, to catch a glimpse of her-to spy without being seen. Maybe then I could learn if the rumors were true-that her daddy was really her brother; that she had chickens sleeping in her bed; that she ate only raw potatoes. And the best rumor of all: that she had a pony who limped and who some kids claimed they'd seen her riding naked in the fields behind her house.

I knew better than to make friends with a girl like Delores Griswold. I'd lived in New Canaan only six months or so, but it was long enough to know the rules. Rule number one for surviving the fifth grade was that you didn't make friends with the Potato Girl. Not if you wanted any other kids to like you. Del was a pariah. The kid all the others loved to hate. She was too skinny, and came to school in worn, dirty clothes that were often hand-me-downs from her brothers. She was two years older than most of the other fifth graders, having stayed back in kindergarten and then again in fourth grade.

She had dirt so thick on her neck that it looked like maybe she really was dug up from the ground like one of the potatoes they grew on her family's farm. She was pale enough to be from underground. And if you got close enough to her, you got a whiff of moist earth.

Maybe, just maybe, if I'd had any other friends back then, if I'd sworn allegiance to anyone else, I wouldn't have started cutting across those frozen fields hoping to catch a glimpse of her naked on a pony. Maybe then I wouldn't have met her at all. She wouldn't have shown me her secret in the root cellar or made me touch the dead crow.

But I had no friends, and I, like Del, was an outsider. A kid from New Hope who came to school with a lunch box full of steamed vegetables, thick slabs of grainy homemade bread, and dried fruit for dessert. How I longed to be a white-bread-and-bologna girl then. Or even, like Del, to have the worn brass tokens the poor kids used in the cafeteria to buy a hot lunch each day. Something to link me to some group, some ring of kids, instead of sticking out like the sore thumb I was, eating my hippie lunch alone, smiling stupidly at anyone who walked by my table.


Excerpted from Promise Not to Tell by Jennifer McMahon Copyright © 2007 by Jennifer McMahon . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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What People are saying about this

Pam Lewis
“PROMISE NOT TO TELL takes you through the twisted world of adolescent friendship, betrayal and murder.”
Sara Gruen
“Deeply disturbing and darkly compelling...”

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