A common practice on TV mysteries is to start out with the discovery of the dead body. NCIS, for example, is notorious for funny or gross body discoveries to start the mystery.
Or the show uses the ever popular death on screen of the victim of the week. Unless it’s COLUMBO, the viewer doesn’t know the identity of the murderer. They just see some poor soul chased and murdered.
That’s TV, a very visual medium, but is it a good idea to start with the murder or the murder victim?
Like all things in writing, it depends. Here are some possible reasons to start with the body or the murder.
The writer makes the reader care immediately with a personable or sympathetic victim in viewpoint. Clues and false clues can be presented to get the reader’s crime-solving started at that first page.
The murderer as the viewpoint character ups the scare factor because it’s obvious he intends to do it again as a serial killer, or he has a vendetta against the book’s hero. The hero may realize this, early on, but the reader knows already and is flipping pages like mad because he’s worried about the main character.
Reader expectations. If this book is about solving a murder, and the main character is a professional crime solver, the body should be front and center from the beginning. A cozy mystery is allowed some time to set up the characters, etc., without the reader getting bored.
Atmosphere. A chase through the darkness or the murder can really set the book’s tone and atmosphere. This is more a side effect of the other reasons to start with the murder, and shouldn’t be the only reason.
Excitement before the boring part. If the mystery needs considerable set up, the murder gets the reader reading then hopefully keeps him reading until the pace picks up a bit.
Later then now. A technique which is no longer popular with good reason is to start at the murder, then go back in narrative time before that point. It’s a cheap trick that will make most readers roll their eyes. Use with great caution.