Forensic Science in Fiction

Douglas Corleone is the author of three crime novels published by St. Martin’s Minotaur. His debut novel One Man’s Paradise was nominated for the 2010 Shamus Award for Best First Novel. A former New York City defense attorney, Doug now lives in the Hawaiian Islands, where he is currently at work on his next novel.  You can visit him online at His most recent novel, Last Lawyer Standing, has just been released.

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There’s no escaping technology.  Crime writers know this as well as anyone.  Modern law enforcement agencies use state-of-the-art techniques to solve all types of crimes, from burglary to rape and murder.  So if you write contemporary crime fiction, it is vital that you learn the basics of forensic science.

I was lucky.  From a very early age I realized I wanted to be a criminal – um, a criminal defense attorney, that is.  So by the time I reached college, I was already well-read in crime fiction and had a good idea of which courses I’d find most interesting.  I majored in the administration of justice, which allowed me to take multiple courses related to forensic science.  During those courses, I learned how to find and gather latent fingerprints, and how to use them for purposes of comparison to identify a perpetrator.  Same with impression evidence, such as shoe and tire prints.  I even picked up some cutting-edge material, namely lip print analysis, which I would use more than a decade later when writing my debut novel One Man’s Paradise.

In subsequent books, I revisited other parts of my forensics classes.  For Night on Fire, I heavily researched arson investigation and refreshed my memory about terms such as “point of origin” and “accelerants.”  For my most recent release, Last Lawyer Standing, I researched ballistics, which investigators use to determine whether a bullet was fired from a particular make and model, if not from a particular gun.  In all three books (and in my years as a defense attorney), I relied heavily on toxicology reports.

Police procedurals regained popularity in recent years, thanks largely to television shows such as CSI and its numerous spinoffs.  In other words, police procedurals owe a good deal to new technologies utilized in forensic science.  Readers and television viewers today are interested in learning how crimes are solved.  Not just by knocking on doors and sweating suspects under the hot lights deep in the bowels of a police department, but by analyzing bloodstain patterns and cutting into a dead body to determine whether the victim was already gone by the time she fell down the stairs and broke her neck.

If you’re a writer interested in learning more about forensics, I recommend picking up a few books intended just for storytellers.  Forensics by D.P. Lyle is part of the Howdunit series of books published by Writer’s Digest.  Writing Mysteries, edited by Sue Grafton, includes sections on forensic science, as does Now Write!: Mysteries.  (Full disclosure: An essay and exercise authored by yours truly can be found in Now Write!: Mysteries, starting on page 288.  The essay is titled “Forensics: The Cutting Edge”.)

Book Reviews: The Sparrow’s Blade by Kenneth R. Lewis, Headhunters by Jo Nesbo, The Cut by George Pelecanos, The Infernals by John Connolly, and Feast Day of Fools by James Lee Burke

The Sparrow's BladeThe Sparrow’s Blade
Kenneth R. Lewis
Krill Press, February 2011
ISBN: 978-0-9821443-8-1
Trade Paperback

As in this author’s debut novel, Little Blue Whales, which was warmly received, this one also takes place in Cutter City, OR, and features Kevin Kearnes and Thud Compton.  It is now a few years after the harrowing experience described in the earlier book in which they were almost killed, and their roles have changed:  Kearnes, the former Chief of Police, is now with the Dept. of Homeland Security in Portland, and Compton has replaced him as Police Chief.

The book opens with Kevin traveling to Cutter City with his fiancée Britt McGraw and his sons by a former marriage, to be married as well as to visit with the Comptons.  Little did any of them know that a sword on display at the local library, a relic of World War II when a Japanese pilot dropped two bombs in the vicinity and then crashed, would result in the turmoil that it did when it is stolen.

The excellent portrayal of the characters, coupled with the tension of the plot, maintain reader interest on the same high level of the predecessor book.  The level of writing remains at the high level of Little Blue Whales which presumably will continue in the forthcoming The Helical Vane.  Needless to say, Sparrow (the name for the sword, btw) is recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, January 2012.


Jo Nesbo
Vintage Books, September 2011
ISBN: 978-0-307-94868-7
Trade Paperback

Turning his attention away from his highly regarded Harry Hole series, the author has written a compelling standalone.  While the background of Roger Brown, as a top headhunter of corporate officials in Oslo, provides some interesting and useful information on how to judge and place candidates, it is the main crime plot and character descriptions that are undeniably gripping.

Roger seems to have it all, except sufficient income to pay for the art gallery he has helped his wife, Diana, establish and operate. Thus, to supplement his need for cash to deal with the operating deficit, he steals art from candidates he interviews for jobs.  Until, that is, he encounters Clas Greve, whom he meets one evening at his wife’s gallery.  And the plot thickens.

Jo Nesbo, in this novel, has proved he is an author capable of writing almost anything.  It is superbly formulated, with humor and irony. The plot has more twists and turns in its concluding pages than a mountain road.  It needs no further recommendation other than to go get a copy and revel in a job well done.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, January 2012.


The CutThe Cut
George Pelecanos
A Reagan Arthur Book/Little, Brown and Company, September 2011
ISBN: 978-0-316-07842-9

In the first novel of a new series, we are introduced to Spero Lucas, a just-returned Iraq war veteran, working as an investigator for a Washington, D.C. defense attorney with a sideline of recovering “lost” property for a 40 per cent cut of its value.  In the caper he undertakes in this initial foray, he seems to bite off more than he can chew.

The attorney is defending a top marijuana peddler, and the client asks for Spero to visit him in jail.  He tells Spero that his deliveries are being stolen and he is out of money, and would appreciate recovery of either the merchandise or the cash.  The assignment takes Spero off into all kinds of action, some of which is kind of far-fetched.

Mr. Pelecanos is well-known for his characterizations and his use of the nation’s Capital as background, and this book is no exception. Somehow, however, using Spero as an example of a footloose vet just returned from the desert just didn’t quite ring true.  Some of his friends who served with him there do exhibit the plight of wounded, disabled marines, or just plain still unemployed, somewhat more realistically.  That said, the novel is written with the author’s accustomed flair, and the plot moves at a rapid pace.  Certainly, the action is vivid, and the reader keeps turning pages.


Reviewed by Ted Feit, January 2012.


The InfernalsThe Infernals
John Connolly
Atria Books, September 2011
ISBN: 978-1-4516-4308-4

This novel, the sequel to The Gates, picks up 18 months after the events described in that book, after young Samuel Johnson [just turned 13], assisted by his faithful dog, Boswell, repelled an invasion of earth by the forces of evil.  The two books are quite a departure for the author, whose Charlie Parker mysteries are highly regarded and widely read.  These are categorized as YA books, laced with pseudo-scientific and amusing footnotes.  [It should perhaps be noted that the tenth Charlie Parker novel, The Burning Soul, has also been released.]

This time around Samuel, accompanied by four dwarfs and the truck in which they were riding, an ice cream truck and its vendor-driver, and two policemen and their patrol car, are instead transported by the ogre Ba’al in the form of Mrs. Abernathy to the netherworld to present the boy to her master, the Great Malevolence, as a gift in an effort to regain his favor.  And so we follow their adventures as they experience the strange land and seek a way to get back home.

Written at times with tongue firmly in cheek, the little nuggets of information on a wide variety of subjects are both informative and often just plain funny.  A very enjoyable read that is highly recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, January 2012.


Feast Day of FoolsFeast Day of Fools
James Lee Burke
Simon & Schuster, September 2011
ISBN: 978-1-4516-4311-4

Against the bleak terrain of southern Texas, a morality play featuring Sheriff Hackberry Holland is played out.  It begins with a man who escapes his captors, who had planned to turn him over to Al Qaeda, for a price, for his knowledge of drone technology.  Not only is he sought by his former captors, but the FBI, among others, as well.  Hack, and his deputy, Pam Tibbs, become involved in the interplay.

This is a complicated novel, one in which the author delves into a wide variety of moral and ethical values, adding Hack’s past experiences as a POW during the Korean Conflict, to raise additional questions of right and wrong.  And bringing in The Preacher as a counterpoint further adds to the complexity of not only the plot, but also Hack’s integrity.

James Lee Burke’s prose is as stark as his descriptions of the Texas and Mexican landscapes, and the characters he introduces are deftly portrayed, both good and evil.  He has presented an intricate plot in this, his 30th novel, and the fifth featuring the Texas sheriff.


Reviewed by Ted Feit, January 2012.

How My Life Took a Detour I Never Regretted—and a Giveaway

Carolyn J. Rose is the author of several novels, including Hemlock Lake, Through a Yellow Wood, An Uncertain Refuge, A Place of Forgetting, and No Substitute for Murder. She penned two humorous cozy mysteries, The Big Grabowski and Sometimes a Great Commotion, with her husband, Mike Nettleton. By the Sea of Regret, the sequel to An Uncertain Refuge, will emerge in the late fall of 2012.

She grew up in New York’s Catskill Mountains, graduated from the University of Arizona, logged two years in Arkansas with Volunteers in Service to America, and spent 25 years as a television news researcher, writer, producer, and assignment editor in Arkansas, New Mexico, Oregon, and Washington. She founded the Vancouver Writers’ Mixers and is an active supporter of her local bookstore, Cover to Cover. Her interests are reading, gardening, and not cooking.

Leave a comment below for a chance to win

a copy of Through a Yellow Wood.

Recently I reconnected with several men and women who were also Volunteers in Service to America during the early 1970’s in Arkansas. We’ve been playing “remember the time that?” and exchanging photos and anecdotes from back in the day. Each exchange opens a door to another mental room crammed with memories of incidents that feel almost as if they happened to someone else.

(Hmmm. And I thought I’d reached the age where events in the distant past were supposed to be more vivid than what happened yesterday.)

I joined VISTA because, in the middle of my first year of grad school (University of Arizona), while reading the criticism of a critique of an analysis of a novel, several things occurred to me. 1) The criticism was three degrees removed from the original talent—the author of the novel being dissected. 2) The paper I’d been assigned to write would be another degree removed. 3) I couldn’t remember how I made this career choice. 4) I wanted a do-over. 5) There was more to the world. 6) I wanted to see it. 7) Now. 8) Or at least pretty darn soon.

I closed the book and turned on the TV only to discover that local stations were signing off for the night. (Does that still happen? I haven’t stayed up past 10 PM in years.) A public service announcement came on and I saw the letters VISTA. I wasn’t exactly sure what VISTA was all about, but I knew it was a detour from the road to teaching.

I filled out an application without hesitation and without discussing my decision with anyone. A few weeks later I was accepted and that July headed to training in Austin, Texas—a week of lectures and discussion groups aimed at deciding which volunteers fit the program and where they would be sent. When the week was up, I was headed for Little Rock, Arkansas, assigned to food and medical programs.

Little Rock, where summer temperatures around 100 were compounded by humidity above 100%, where rain showers only made things steamier, where just opening the door to an air-conditioned building made me gasp with relief.

We lived on poverty wages, renting houses in neighborhoods that made my parents swallow hard and bite their tongues to keep from begging me to come home to the Catskills. (A sure way to get me to do just the opposite.) We ate peanut butter from economy-size jars, generic cheese that came in huge blocks, beans and potatoes and rice, and whatever was on sale. Now and then an orphanage gave us their surplus day-old bread.

For entertainment, we played softball and went to the drive-in movies on carload night. We played pool in a tavern that was best not viewed in the daylight. Dangerous as it was, we swam in bauxite pits outside of town.

I was a middle class kid—the lower rung of the middle class, as my mother often said—but my parents owned our house and we had indoor plumbing and hot water. There was always enough to eat and enough blankets on a bed I didn’t have to share. When winter came I had a warm coat, boots, and mittens—often hand-me-downs, but sometimes new. I got booster shots and had my inflamed tonsils removed and, from the time my first tooth pushed through, I owned a toothbrush.

During my first year in VISTA I met kids who had few of those things—even one who never had a toothbrush—despite the fact that their parents worked, and worked hard. I became aware of stark inequities, of ingrained opinions and attitudes, of deep social and economic chasms.

I realized that that these chasms were everywhere, in every city and every state. Some were old. Some were deep. Some were wide. Some were shrinking. Some were expanding.

But despite that, the world seemed filled with possibilities, especially possibilities for positive change, for bridges across the chasms.

As time went by, however, I realized how powerless I was to repaint the big picture. Worse, I recognized that there were times when I had been part of a problem rather than part of a solution.

And every day I saw how fortunate I’d been, how fortunate I still was. When my term was up, I could pack my car, take my teaching degree, and get a job almost anywhere.

But, like many of the Volunteers I served with, I stayed on for several years. I worked for the Commission on the Status of Women and then got into TV news as a producer and assignment editor. That was a career I stuck with for the next 25+ years; it took me to New Mexico, Oregon, and Washington. When the pressure of meeting deadlines became more exhausting than exhilarating, I gave up TV, started plotting my first novel, and made ends meet by working as an associate editor for Editing International and as a high school substitute teacher.

I was a VISTA for two years. I didn’t change the world. But I did change the way I looked at it.

The VISTA years opened my eyes to prejudice and poverty, to inequity and injustice, and to kindness and commitment. The VISTA years also made me aware of more subtle things—what I call the “fine print of life,” the subtext of situations, the back-story information that explains attitudes, interactions, and events. The experiences of those years enabled me to be more patient in the classroom, to be a more compassionate and generous friend, and (hopefully) to be a better writer.

Leave a comment below and you might win a copy of

Through a Yellow Wood by Carolyn J. Rose!

The winning name will be drawn Wednesday evening, the 29th.

Book Review: Spring Fever by Mary Kay Andrews

Spring Fever
Mary Kay Andrews
St. Martin’s Press, June 2012
ISBN 9780312642716
Hardcover (e-ARC)

From the publisher—

Annajane Hudgens truly believes she is over her ex-husband, Mason Bayless.  They’ve been divorced for four years, she’s engaged to a new, terrific guy, and she’s ready to leave the small town where she and Mason had so much history.  She is so over Mason that she has absolutely no problem attending his wedding to the beautiful, intelligent, delightful Celia.  But when fate intervenes and the wedding is called to a halt as the bride is literally walking down the aisle, Annajane begins to realize that maybe she’s been given a second chance.  Maybe everything happens for a reason.  And maybe, just maybe, she wants Mason back.  But there are secrets afoot in this small southern town.  On the peaceful surface of Hideaway Lake, Annajane discovers that the past is never really gone.  Even if there are people determined to keep Annajane from getting what she wants, happiness might be hers for the taking, and the life she once had with Mason in this sleepy lake town might be in her future.

In the past, I’ve really enjoyed Ms. Andrew‘s books, whether they were mysteries or good ol’ Southern fiction, and Spring Fever is no exception. Family issues, as is so often the case, make simple decisions fly right out the window and the nosiness of certain people about certain other people is so typical of small-town life that you have to wonder how anyone expects secrets to be kept.

Still, Annajane does have secrets and some of them are so deep she kept them from herself. When she agrees to attend her ex-husband’s wedding to the beautiful but rather unpleasant Celia, she thinks it will be a fitting end to her life in Passcoe, NC, as she prepares for a new beginning in Atlanta with a man who’s totally “not her type”. Unfortunately, things don’t go exactly the way she or anyone else planned—when do they ever?—and, when Mason asks for her help with his daughter and the family business, she finds it awfully hard to turn him down.

Greed, criminal goings-on, romance, humor, Southern charm and small-town life all come together in a nice blend and I thoroughly enjoyed spending a little time with Annajane, Mason, Pokey and even the villains of the piece.  Ms. Andrews entertained me as she always does and now I’m going to go see if maybe I’ve missed one of her books, something to tide me over till the next hilarious outing.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, August 2012.

A New Series and the Contest Continues, Day 4

Joanna Campbell Slan was born in Jacksonville, Florida, but she grew up in a small town in Indiana. After graduating from Ball State University with a degree in journalism, she worked as a newspaper reporter, a newspaper ad salesperson, a television talk show host, a college teacher, a public relations professional, and a motivational speaker. In that capacity, she was named by Sharing Ideas Magazine as “one of the top 25 speakers in the world.”

When her son, Michael, got his driver’s license, Joanna was freed from carpool duty and finally able to pursue her dream of writing full time. She has since written eighteen books, eleven non-fiction and seven fiction.

On August 7, Joanna’s newest series—The Jane Eyre Chronicles— begins with Death of a Schoolgirl and features Charlotte Brontë’s classic heroine Jane Eyre as an amateur sleuth.

Three weeks ago, we announced a contest featuring of Joanna Campbell Slan’s newest book Death of a Schoolgirl. This is the first mystery in The Jane Eyre Chronicles, which picks up where Charlotte Brontë’s classic Jane Eyre ended.  Yes, Dear Reader, you might win a signed copy of this new book as well as a stylish tee shirt (pictured). Here are the rules:

  1. Each Sunday on this blog, we will ask you a question about the original Jane Eyre. If you haven’t read it, it’s available for free through Google books. If that’s too much trouble, you can find the answer to the Sunday question each Monday on Joanna’s author Facebook page (
  2. All four of your answers are due on Monday, August 27. Send ALL FOUR answers to Joanna in an email at
  3. You must put JANE EYRE in the subject line.
  4. You must share your name and POSTAL address along with your answers.
  5. Joanna will use a random number generator to choose a winner.
  6. The drawing is open to readers in the continental US.

Are you ready?

After teaching at the girls’ school for many years, Jane is determined to find a job as a governess. Toward that end, she advertises for a position. A letter arrives, offering her a job tutoring a young girl, who is the ward of Edward Rochester.

QUESTION #4:  What is the name of Edward Rochester’s ward?

Book Review: The Preacher by Camilla Lackberg

The Preacher
Camilla Lackberg
Simon & Schuster/Free Press, February 2012
ISBN 9781451621778
Trade Paperback

Never think that past deeds won’t come back to haunt you. You know better. This is never more true than the events in the latest novel by Camilla Lackberg. With a soap opera feel The Preacher reaches into the past and brings terrible truths to light and woe to the wrongdoers.

In 1979, two young women disappeared in the little southwestern Swedish tourist town of Fjallacka. In 2003, a little boy playing in the early morning discovers the body of a recently missing young woman. Underneath her body are the bones of the pair from so long ago. Enter detective Patrik Hedstrom and his team to begin the investigation of the murders. In the suspect spotlight is the Hult family whose patriarch was a well known charismatic preacher. One of his sons fell under suspicion for the original murders but supposedly committed suicide. When another girl goes missing, and one of the Hults is severely beaten, the tension amps up as Hedstrom, who is missing being with his very pregnant wife, finds himself against the clock to prevent another murder. In doing so, he uncovers secrets and lies and literal buried evidence.

This book is filled with so many fascinating characters and with everybody having strained relations with nearly everyone else, it really is like a soap opera. I enjoyed the dry subtle humor to help break up the tension. While Patrik deals with the murders his wife suffers not only the hardship of late term pregnancy but also visiting friends and family who are wonderfully, devilishly selfish, and do not seem to notice their stressed and expecting hostess. For a foreign based murder mystery, this one fills the bill.

Reviewed by Stephen L. Brayton, April 2012.
Author of Night Shadows and Beta.

And Now A Few Words From Kathleen…

kathleen-kaska-2Kathleen Kaska is the author of the Classic Triviography Mystery Series, which includes The Alfred Hitchcock Triviography and Quiz Book, The Sherlock Holmes Triviography and Quiz Book, and The Agatha Christie Triviography and Quiz Book. Kathleen also writes the award-winning Sydney Lockhart mystery series set in the 1950s. Her first two mysteries, Murder at the Arlington and Murder at the Luther, were selected as bonus-books for the Pulpwood Queens Book Group, the largest book group in the country. Her third Sydney Lockhart mystery, Murder at the Galvez, will be out soon.

I’m so pleased to welcome Kathleen
to Buried Under Books to answer a
few questions about herself
and about Sherlock.


cncbooks: What made you decide to write trivia and quiz books about such iconic entertainment figures?

Kathleen: When I first began writing, I knew I wanted to write a mystery series. I hadn’t a clue how to begin, so I enrolled in creative writing classes. In the meantime, I read in a writer’s magazine that trivia books were becoming popular, and since they were nonfiction, a writer could sell a book with a proposal. I had the entire Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes collection on my bookshelf and decided to give mystery trivia a try. Six months later, I had a proposal, a New York agent, and a contract. One trivia book became three. So, I got off track for a while, but what an education that was.

cncbooks: Do you make deals with yourself when you’re writing, i.e., if you finish X number of pages you get to eat ice cream?

Kathleen: I might have to try that. I don’t so much make deals as I set goals for the day. When I accomplish those goals, the satisfaction I feel is usually reward enough. Who am I kidding? The martini is chilling in the fridge as I write.

cncbooks: What is the last book you read purely for pleasure?

Kathleen: You won’t believe this, but it was the Sherlock Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet. We have a new Holmes society in town, The Dogs in the Nighttime, and this was the book we chose to discuss. It had been way too since I’d read it. I guess you’d call me a Sherlockiac.

cncbooks: If Sir Arthur Conan Doyle were shipwrecked on an uncharted island with no hope of rescue, who is the one person he would want with him and why?

Kathleen: Certainly not Holmes. I believe there was an unspoken rivalry between the two. Maybe Harry Houdini since they were close friends and Conan Doyle believed Houdini had a direct connection to the spiritual world. Conan Doyle often tried to connect with his dead relatives by holding séances often with Houdini present.

cncbooks: Same question for Sherlock Holmes?

the-sherlock-holmes-triviography-and-quiz-bookKathleen: Holmes might consider himself the best company possible. But, if I had to choose someone else, I’d say his archrival Professor James Moriarty. Holmes lived for the “game.”

cncbooks: Why do you think Sherlock Holmes is such an enduring fictional detective?

Kathleen: That’s a good question, and I’ve been asked that many times. I’d say his intellect, self-absorption, and exciting life style. His life is full of adventure, he’s rarely wrong, he’s not caught up in emotions, and he pretty much does what he pleases. Except for the self-absorption, wouldn’t we all like to posses those traits . . . at least sometimes?

cncbooks: What do you think of the radical changes in the upcoming TV show, “Elementary” and do you believe rabid fans of Sherlock will accept these changes?

Kathleen: I’ve come across two basic types of Holmes fans: the Holmes purist, who believes that any pastiche should stick to the original canon, and Holmes fans who want and enjoy anything “Holmes.” I know Watson is portrayed as a woman in “Elementary,” but look at the different portrayals of Holmes. Holmes as a teenager, Holmes as a married man, Holmes as a Jack Russell terrier, and Holmes as a person who isn’t Holmes, but thinks he is. I’m looking forward to watching the series and seeing how Lucy Liu pulls it off.

cncbooks: You’re heading for a week-long solitary retreat. Other than writing tools, what are the five items you simply must take with you?

Kathleen: I’m assuming I have to leave my husband at home. That said; I would take a strong bag of coffee, my pillow, my collection of 5 favorite books (Nine Horses by Billy Collins, The Great Gatsby, To Kill a Mocking Bird, Essay of E. B. White, and the ACD Sherlock Holmes Canon), a good bird book, and a photo of my husband. Don’t ask me to choose just one book. I’d short circuit.

cncbooks: What’s more fun to write, fiction or nonfiction?

Kathleen: That’s an easy one to answer. For me it is much easier to write fiction. My protagonists in the-man-who-saved-the-whooping-cranemy two mystery series are like old friends. We get together, talk (actually, they do most of the talking), and write. The ideas flow, characters appear, problems arise, and we’re off and running. Writing nonfiction is work, not that it’s not enjoyable, but the research takes so much time.

cncbooks: Do you find it difficult to write for more than one publisher?

Kathleen: No, because they publish different genres. LL-publications published my Classic Triviography Mystery Series and my Sydney Lockhart Mystery Series. University Press of Florida just published my nonfiction book: The Man Who Saved the Whooping Crane: The Robert Porter Allen Story.

cncbooks: Do you think social networking, blogging, tweeting, etc., are worthwhile promotional tools for authors or do they steal too much time away from career writing?

Kathleen: Social networking takes a lot of time, but it is necessary in today’s world. Publishers expect their authors to promote as much as possible. I have to make sure my writing time is balanced.

cncbooks: What is in store for you? What’s happening next?

Kathleen: This has been an incredible year for me. My three out-of-print mystery trivia books were picked up by LL-Publications and updated and reissued in May. My whooping crane book, which was six years in the making, will be released on September 16. And my third Sydney Lockhart mystery, Murder at the Galvez, will be out before the end of the year. That’s five books in one year. I’ve been promoting all five with blog posts, book signing, library presentations, Audubon presentation, etc. My head is spinning, not that I’m complaining.

Kathleen, thanks for being such a good sport today!