A girl is killed the night Kate Cypher returns to the town she grew up in to make tough decisions about her increasingly senile mother. The recent murder (set in 2002) shocks Kate even more than might be expected. It's not only the fact that the victim, Tori Miller, was the best friend of Kate's young friend Opal but also the eerie similarity to the long-ago murder of her own childhood friend, Del. Kate's mother still lives in New Hope, the commune in which she raised Kate, although the members have dwindled to only four: Kate's mother, Gabriel (the original founder), a woman named Raven, and Raven's 12-year-old daughter, Opal.
The stories of the two murders are told in alternating chapters, weaving the 1971 tale of Kate's friendship with Del and the 2002 tale of Kate's struggles with her regretful memories and her present situation. When Kate was 12, her only friend was the shunned poor and dirty "Potato Girl," Del. The younger and older Kate's lives are bisected by both shocking murders. In 2002, as Kate hears of Tori Miller's death in the woods near the commune, she remembers that her mother wandered in the forest that night --- but whatever her mother may have seen is locked within her stricken brain.
Back in 1971, Kate and Del spy on the members of New Hope. Kate soon realizes that everyone has secrets as she overhears Raven's mother hint about the identity of her father. Even young Kate has a secret: the friendship with Del is something she refuses to share with anyone other than Del's brother, Nicky. Del herself has a mysterious tattoo on her chest and alludes to Nicky's "B-A-D" secret, even as Del tells Kate that Nicky has a crush on Kate.
In 2002, young Opal confides her own secret to Kate: the Potato Girl came for her the afternoon Tori died. She has seen Del's ghost for years and is convinced that Del is after her. She is sure that Del mistook Tori Miller for Opal, since Tori was wearing Opal's jacket and had similar hair. That's when Kate realizes that Opal actually looks like Del, with her blonde hair, thin body and air of desperation.
Even as an adult, Kate continues to lie about her friendship with Del as a web of unexplainable clues in both deaths tightens around her, leaving Kate (and the reader) off-kilter and uneasy. Kate describes the townspeople as having "secrets piled on like those Russian nesting dolls." So does this book, with puzzles opening into more puzzles, leaving even the most jaded mystery reader discombobulated (in a pleasurable way).
PROMISE NOT TO TELL is a page-turner that's nearly impossible to put down. With its gothic atmosphere and true-to-life characters, author Jennifer McMahon doesn't miss a beat. Is it a mystery story, a ghost tale, a thriller, or a literary meditation on redemption? I can't decide, but I do know it's irresistible.
Reviewed by Terry Miller Shannon(firstname.lastname@example.org) on January 23, 2011