In Susan Hanafee’s debut novel, Leslie’s Voice, corporate communications executive Leslie Elliott struggles to find the voice to respond to the tumult in her life, including growing estrangement from her husband, the machinations of a corporate merger, and sexual harassment from her superior.

Hanafee herself has no such problem. “My voice has always been simple and straightforward,” she declares. “If you knew me well, you would say that I’m very direct.” This no doubt comes from her decades as a journalist with the Indianapolis Star, covering politics and state government. In fiction as in journalism, she wants to engage and entertain the reader. But if she can also make them laugh, or “if I can get by with it” or be a little outrageous, all the better.

Think of Leslie’s Voice as an origin story. In succeeding series entries (there are now four published books), Leslie, an aspiring writer on the hunt for material, teams up with a local newspaper reporter to solve mysteries that abound in the island community of Anibonie, Florida. But in this inaugural volume, Leslie is in corporate communications for Metro Energy Company, whose new CEO, Brad Stewart, seems to be grooming her for a more intimate role that extends beyond handling PR, writing his speeches, and overseeing investor relations.

Meanwhile, she is becoming increasingly estranged from her husband, who finally and without warning announces he is seeking a divorce:

“It’ll be in the paper this week. There’s an apartment booked for you in the Sycamore Club. You can pick up your clothes when you’re back from your trip.”

“What!” Leslie cried out. “Divorce? You filed for divorce and it will be in the paper? My God, Scott. You can’t be serious.”

She felt her stomach tighten and her knees weaken. She sat down on the edge of the bed. “W-we never talked about divorce,” she said. “How could you do this over the phone? With no warning?”

“My attorney will call your attorney,” he said.

“Attorney? I don’t have an attorney, and you know it…”

“Maybe you should get one,” he said, and hung up.

Kirkus Reviews praises Leslie’s Voice as “an auspicious start for an adventurous, creative author…a fast-paced, intense depiction of corporate America and the perennial struggle of women seeking equal treatment in the boardroom.”

Hanafee says that everything she writes is “truth masquerading as fiction.” Like Leslie, she went through a divorce. She also began a new career in corporate communications following her tenure at the Indianapolis Star and was involved in a failed corporate takeover. Anibonie, the setting of her later books in the series, is based on Gasparilla Island, where she lived before moving to her current home in Sarasota.

Leslie’s Voice has been written and rewritten over the past decade. It was originally published under a different title and a male pen name because of the book’s graphic sex scenes. “My hairdresser told a friend of mine, the church choir leader, that I was the author.” Hanafee laughs. “And my friend, the sweetest, most cherubic person you would ever want to know, bought a copy. She sought me out in church that next Sunday to tell me she couldn’t wait to read it. I was horrified. But she told me later that she loved it.”

She drew on her own divorce and her experience with the failed corporate takeover for the novel. “I had to be careful because the characters were based on real people, including my ex-husband, who likes my books even though I warned him he ends up being a pretty horrible character in the first book.” (Hanafee owns a T-shirt that reads, “Be careful or you may be in my novel.”)

Journalism was something of a man’s game when Hanafee worked at the Star as one of only three women in the city room. “They wanted to keep me in traditional roles, like church editor,” she describes. “My own father wanted me to become a secretary. But I became one of the first women there to cover Major League Baseball’s spring training games. Women weren’t allowed in the pit at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway until 1971.”

And yes, at the beginning of her career, Hanafee faced unwanted “handsy attention,” she says. “This was the pre-#MeToo era. You couldn’t let them sabotage your career, and there was no place to go for help. You just marched forward. That’s the way it was back then. Women still suffer workplace indignities, but at least they are more empowered to speak out.”

Hanafee shares some characteristics with her heroine. “Leslie has her head turned pretty quickly by a good-looking man,” she says. “I have fallen into that category and not made the wisest of choices. We are both fairly independent; I think I am more outspoken than Leslie. She’s very curious, which is why she likes mysteries. My brother told me, ‘I don’t like that character because she’s too nosy.’ And I replied, ‘You don’t know me very well because I am nosy as hell.’ I used to read papers upside down when I was interviewing someone.”

Hanafee jokes that growing up, her Newcastle, Indiana, home was “the messiest house in the neighborhood.” This was a consequence of her mother, who would become a schoolteacher when Hanafee entered the eighth grade, reading a book a day and regaling her daughter with stories she created.

No wonder Hanafee developed a passion for reading, which grew into an obsession to write. She loved biographies and Nancy Drew. When her mother later joined the board of her public library, Hanafee entered summer reading contests and read everything she could, she says. If Nancy Drew kindled an early love of mysteries, the flame was lit when her father gave her one of S.S. Van Dine’s Philo Vance mysteries. “They were amazing whodunits,” Hanafee says. “I loved trying to figure them out. There was one where someone was stabbed to death, but there was no sign of a weapon. Turned out the murderer used an icicle. Those kinds of things intrigued me.”

Hanafee’s own series’ turn toward mysteries was inspired by her imaginings on Gasparilla Island. “On my morning walks, I would pass this house, and I always wondered why it was unfinished. One of the Realtors told me that there was once drug running on the island. It is an amazing place and filled with real characters.”

Hanafee jokes, “I always like to say there is a party going on in my mind.” That party is just getting started: She is currently plotting and gathering information for her next book and also readying the fifth book in the Leslie Elliott series, Under the Sand, for publication. In addition, she blogs a couple of times a week and is occasionally drafted to write articles for the weekly island newspaper. “What a hoot, right?” she asks with a laugh.

But she is not one to subscribe to Brad Stewart’s mantra in Leslie’s Voice, “The best is yet to come.

“I had a friend who used to say that the best is yet to come,” she reflects. “He always said he was going to do this, and he was going to do that, but then he died of cancer. So I never say that the best is yet to come. For me, the best time is now.”

Donald Liebenson is a Chicago-based writer who is published in the Washington Post, Town & Country, and on