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Promise Not to Tell: A Novel

Promise Not to Tell: A Novel

3.9 254
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


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.

Editorial Reviews

Sarah Gruen
“Deeply disturbing and darkly compelling...”
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.”
“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.”

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HarperCollins Publishers
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Promise Not to Tell

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 footwrapped 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.

Promise Not to Tell. Copyright © by Jennifer McMahon. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

Jennifer McMahon is the author of Dismantled, the New York Times bestseller Island of Lost Girls, and the breakout debut novel Promise Not to Tell. She lives in Vermont with her partner, Drea, and their daughter, Zella.

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Promise Not to Tell 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 254 reviews.
MrsV More than 1 year ago
Because PROMISE NOT TO TELL was well-written and because it kept me in suspense almost until the end, I liked it and thought it good enough to get another book by this author. It sagged a bit at toward the last. Typical for today's books, as it seems the authors don't know how to bring them to an end. Interesting believable characters. Most of us probably went to school with someone like the potato girl.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This was a good, fast-paced novel, where the ghost story aspect played second fiddle to the greater story about shame and regret, and what happens to a person's heart and soul when they have to live with a decision they can never, ever take back. Kate, 41, returns to her childhood home in Vermont to try to make some decisions about what to do for long term health care of her mother who is afflicted with Alzheimers. The first night she is home, a young teenage girl is gruesomely murdered, and the details of that murder strongly resemble those of another girl, Delores 'Del' Griswold, who had been murdered some thirty years earlier. Ridiculed in life as 'the potato girl' for her dirt poor existence and outsider ways, her death has made her legendary, with every bad thing that ever happens in town being blamed on the ghost of the potato girl. Kate's own involvement with Del when they were children, and--in a desperate attempt to fit in with the popular crowd--her fateful decision to not stand up for her friend at a critical moment has haunted Kate for years. The novel is written in chapters that alternate between present day and thirty year old events, and as Kate begins to unravel the mystery of who killed Del all those years ago, she is granted the impossible gift to finally make amends. While I recommend the book, I did feel it was weak at the end. Without giving away the 'who-dun-it' of the story, the climax where Kate confronts the murderer while he/she is in the act of trying to commit a third murder just doesn't work. We are asked to picture four and then five people all standing in the same room discussing in a fairly calm and rational matter what happened to these girls while the murderer is also trying to kill a third victim. Uh-uh. Doesn't work. And we never get much of a look into the psyche of the murderer in the first place. Fortunately, the larger story of regret and redemption carry the story and make it a worthwhile read. I'll be watching for further works by this author.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Good book for a light read :) Mixes a little of reality, mystery and paranormal activity to keep you interested!
Tweenthepages More than 1 year ago
As one or more previous reviewers have mentioned, this book read pretty well, but seemed to have an identity crisis, and ended very weakly. I couldn't tell from chapter to chapter what the author meant the book to be. I have to say I was surprised and disappointed when the ending got wrapped up in the most nonsensical manner, as if the publishers had said, "Get a move on, willya?" and she was forced to write the ending as quickly as possible. Her prose is enjoyable, but her characters were not very likable and I couldn't find myself caring about any of them (except for one distasteful scene about how cruel children can be). I would read another book by this author to see if she grows and matures, but probably only if someone bought it and let me borrow it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
My daughter and I both loved this book, a must have!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Couldn't put it down! A little too predictable though.
JLC_93 More than 1 year ago
Promise Not To Tell is a book that will leave you wanting more, as I read through the book I didn't want to put it down. The chill bumps that are sent through your body as you read this story will leave with nightmares. This is the story of Kate Cypher a 41 year old who returns to her old town of New Hope to take care of her sick mother. Upon returning Kate is faced with the past she has been running from for years, 31 to be exact. Now that Kate is back in her home town it is up to her to solve the murder mystery of her old school friend Del who was killed when they were in the fifth grade. Although Kate did nothing wrong physically she still feels as though she has something to do with the death and she must stop the killer who was never found. Will she be able to do it in time, or will the killer strike again? This is a must read. I have to admit that in parts it is confusing but it is worth a second read if you don't understand it the first time.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I picked this book up on a whim and was glad I did. It was a very easy read and I had trouble putting it down. You get wrapped up in the 'who done it' mystery while becoming so engaged with the very very relatable characters. Because I enjoyed this book so much, I'm going to read The Island of the Lost Girls.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I felt like I was there as the story was happening!
gymbrat6 More than 1 year ago
this book was one of my favorites. it's a mystery, but its still very realistic. i loved it because it combined the main character's past with her present, very interesting.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I bought this nook book for $10 because it sounded like a good mystery with an intriguing plot, but I was disappointed in the story it turned out to be. If you like ghost stories, then this is for you, but other than that, I wouldn't recommend it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Boring book dont waste your time
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book was average. I could see it being made into a Lifetime channel movie. Needed more descriptive details to keep your interest.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Bland, boring and slow. I trudged through it just in hopes my money didn't go to complete waste....Not only did I waste my money, but my time as well. Very disappointed.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed this book.
pjpick More than 1 year ago
For the life of me, I just couldn't get into this book. I'm not quite sure why. Perhaps because it isn't my chosen genre but it came highly recommended and I do like to take myself out of the box every now and then but this time it just didn't work for me. It didn't help that the main character turned out to be a total ingnoramus of a nurse (which is my profession) and perhaps that is why I was so easily turned off. Still, others have quite enjoyed this one so if this is your type of genre you may still want to give it a try but if it isn't and you're just wanting to try something different, you might want to pass up this one. Read the book I've recommended instead.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
First chapter sounded gross but I really enjoyed this book. However, I am very disappointed that it costs $2 more on nook than at Walmart.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Thrilling read had me on the edge of my bed. Couldn't stop had to get to the end of the mystery.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I couldn't pull myself away from this book . Both my mind and heart went head over heals for book on so many levels . Please read this emotional , suspenseful , and mind boggling book. I promise you will WANT TO TELL
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Pretty good read...was disappointed with the ending tho. I think the ending could of been much better.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The story shifts from the past to the present. About being the new kid at school and wanting to fit in so bad that she did something she regrets.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
MaggieSheWrote More than 1 year ago
Holy creepy as hell, Batman. And yet so much more. Depth, twists, darkness and light. Childhood horror, childhood mistakes. Fascinating settings, characters that truly haunt. Brilliantly written and flawlessly executed, this one will make you think and wonder long after you've put it down.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Another entertaining great one! I have yet to be disappointed by jennifer
Anonymous More than 1 year ago