Vernon Bradlusky--a 40-ish Chicago backgammon columnist, prone to nosebleeds and deep in debt, dreaming of getting back on the glitzy backgammon circuit--is a character with some downbeat, engaging potential. Unfortunately, however, this debut-mystery sends narrator Vernon through heavy-breathing plot contortions of the most formula-melodrama sort--starting when Vernon finds the murdered body of his fat, sleazy sometime-partner Toby. Was Toby killed because of a mysterious, precious package that he had mailed to Vernon? So it seems: some foreign-accented thugs go after Vernon himself, determined to get their hands on that elusive MacGuffin. But is Toby's death also connected to Vernon's old flame Caroline, now unhappily married to a Portuguese entrepreneur and backgammon champ? Vernon sets off for the Algarve to find out. (Damsel-in-distress Caroline foots the bill.) And the ensuing revelations, which lead to a watery, near-fatal ordeal, involve Angolan revolutionaries, smuggled diamonds, switched identities, and a ruthless femme fatale. Murky, talky, and unpleasantly peopled--with even Vernon becoming something of a pill.