“The Water Keeper,” by Charles Martin

Charles Martin

Reviewed by Claire Hamner Matturro

Best-selling author Charles Martin’s newest book, The Water Keeper (Thomas Nelson May 2020), is a compelling classic thriller—with more than one sudden turn and several surprising twists. On the most basic level, it operates like most modern thrillers with plenty of edge-of-your-seat suspense, action, danger, violence, and death-defying moments. The story has a clear-cut hero, several shadier villains and a damsel in distress—or in this case a boatload of teenage girls in the hands of well-organized but evil men who would auction them into sexual slavery. Tense stuff.

While the thriller aspects alone make this a powerful book, there is a deeper, more humane quality at play in the story. The Water Keeper is quite a romantic love story. Not, mind you, anything like the bodice-ripping romance genre, but more akin to the tragic romance of such books as Wuthering Heights. The hero has a great, abiding love for his childhood sweetheart, Marie. They married, but circumstances conspired against them and they never even had a honeymoon before they were separated. This love story reveals itself slowly with strange twists and many secrets. Which is to say, this is a book that should appeal equally to thriller fans and those who enjoy a deeply romantic storyline.

A word of caution though. One of the surprising twists in this novel is so well disguised that some readers might become confused, at least initially. The layers of secrets may well trap the reader in bewilderment before all is revealed. But stay with the story. Any misunderstandings will lift as the twists unfold.

The protagonist is a lonely man named Murphy Shepherd. Though credentialed as a priest, he is not a practicing clergy. He lives on an island, caring for the grounds and a church built by slaves near Jacksonville, Florida. But his true work is rescuing kidnapped female children and teens to save them from being sold as sex slaves. He is an operative in a mysterious group that functions solely to save such victims. One character describes Murphy as a man who lives his life “[c]onstantly prepared for the what-ifs. …liv[ing] alone in a slave chapel where [he] is reminded daily that evil is real. Not letting [his] guard down.”

While Murphy is at his island church, a girl who is “[m]aybe sixteen” swims ashore from a party yacht nearby. He recognizes a troubled life in her eyes: “Something ugly behind her. Her glassy eyes betrayed a stormy and medicated mixture of excitement and fear….there was something more than just blood in her blood.” A brief bond is established between the two before she returns to the yacht.

Murphy soon undertakes a private mission to return a box of ashes to “the end of the world.” In his own boat—a twenty-four-foot Boston Whaler named Gone Fiction—he heads down the Intracoastal Waterway of Florida’s east coast. He rescues a Labrador retriever who was “making his way downriver. . . trying to catch a boat long since gone.” Murphy names him Tabby and decides he is the smartest dog he’s ever met. Tabby plays an instrumental role in the story as it unfolds.

Further along, Murphy rescues Summer, a desperate woman who stole a small boat. After she crashes the vessel, Murphy pulls her from the wreckage, nurses her wounds, and befriends her. In short order, he learns she is the mother of Angel, the girl he met on the island, and how desperate Angel’s situation is. Murphy and Summer join forces to rescue her.

While chasing the party yacht where Angel is captive, Murphy encounters Clay, an elderly black man recently released from prison. Turns out that Tabby is Clay’s dog, and the lab’s real name is Gunner. Naturally, Clay and Gunner join forces with Summer and Murphy aboard Gone Fiction as they journey toward Key West in what appears to be a futile and dangerous chase to rescue Angel.

But Murphy is not done picking up passengers. Clay alerts him to a stowaway aboard: Ellie, an orphaned teenage girl.

With these sidekicks and helpmates, Murphy sets out on the near impossible task of rescuing Angel from the party yacht and the organization which would sell her in a dark web auction.

Reducing the elements of the story for purposes of this review might make it seem as if there are a lot of rescues and bonding—so much so perhaps that they might seem contrived. Yet all these plot points flow smoothly together. Of course, as with most—if not all—thrillers, there are times when readers must willingly suspend their disbelief. Still, Martin’s talents as a writer are such that he moves the story along in a seamless fashion that makes such moments slip quietly by.

Martin writes with a blend of straight declaratory sentences, short phrases, and lyrical ones, creating a powerful, deceptively simple prose. Sometimes he juxtaposes images for impact, like in this example: “We passed the bars, the smell of sewer and urine, then crossed into the neighborhoods and the smells of roses and mint.”

The Water Keeper is an exciting story anchored in action and suspense. Yet, throughout it all, Murphy, Summer, Clay, Ellie and Angel are wholly realized, compellingly complex characters presented with sensitivity. Infused through all the action and strong characterizations are two abiding features—the classic romance of Murphy’s tragic love story and the spiritual quality underlying Murphy’s quests.

One passage rings out as particularly strong as Murphy ruminates upon Ellie’s life as an orphan and the spiritual power of relationships:

In Eden, we walked in the cool of the evening with a Father who, by the very nature of the conversations and time spent together, answered our heart’s cry. It was the product of relationship. But out here, somewhere east or west of the Garden, beyond the shadow of the fiery walls, we have trouble hearing what He’s saying. And even when we do, we have trouble believing Him. So we wrestle and search. But regardless of where we search and how we try to answer the question or what we ingest, inject, or swallow to numb the nagging, only the Father gets to tell us who we are.

The Water Keeper is a wonderfully satisfying book with a plot driven by both action and love, and characters who will stay in readers’ heads long after the last page. One can hope Martin will write a sequel and bring Clay, Gunner, Summer, Angel and Ellie back into Murphy’s life.

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  1. Jan Houtman says

    I recently bought the Waterkeeper and start reading it. Wow what a great story, in Dutch it’s called ‘Waar de wereld in de oceaan valt’.
    Also in this book is the main character a honorable man who you really like to identify with. It’s great as all of your books are. It’s full of Hope and that’s what we need.
    Thanks for that Charles!
    Bless you and your family.
    Jan Houtman

  2. Claire… I finished the book last night and I’d like to ask you a question that I have about it…

  3. Marge Daugherty says

    Marge says “I just finished the book and have a question “

  4. At the beginning of the book, a woman whom Murph says is Marie and is dead. But at the end of the book we findMarie is alive?

  5. Bliss Baxley says

    I loved this series.

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