I picked this book up after after enjoying "Savage Pastimes," another book by the same author, and hoped for an informative and gruesome book about an infamous serial killer. "Depraved" was, in places, but the presentation was lacking, and the book had no focus and far too much irrelevant courtroom drama.
It opens up properly, with a thumbnail sketch of the times, H. H. Howard's infamous crimes, and more background info. It then lists some formative experiences from his childhood, and gives a short bio of his life up to the point he turned to murder. After that it loses its way though, with endless discussion of Holmes' travels around the country as he tries to perpetrate a minor insurance scam, and then far too many pages on his murder trail. Surprisingly, his trial is for the murder of a henchmen in an insurance scam, and he's never charged or prosecuted for the dozens of other far more interesting murders he committed. Unfortunately those are hardly mentioned in the book at all, and are not discussed in any detail.
Going by the middle 80% of the book, you'd think it was a biography about a small time hustler, scam artist, and bigamist who eventually got carried away and murdered a partner, and was subsequently tried and executed for it. The fact that he killed maybe 50 other people, built this incredible murder mansion, tortured dozens of people, and was the world's first documented serial killer, is almost an afterthought.
Let's be honest; the hook of the book, the reason anyone reads it, is that it's about H. H. Holmes, who killed a lot of people in various horrible ways, at a time in history when that sort of thing was almost completely unknown. That's' what the reader wants to know about, in as much detail as possible, with lots more about the, "mazelike corridors, soundproof rooms, sealed vaults, oversized furnaces, and chutes leading down to the cellar" that the book jacket talks about. Unfortunately, you get hardly more detail about those things than the book jacket says, with no detailed descriptions of anything, no charts or diagrams or photographs, no eyewitness accounts, and not even any speculation about how the crimes went down.
What you do get are maybe 200 pages (out of the 360 total) covering his seemingly endless and aimless cross-country travels while dodging the cops and tediously plotting to murder his assistant in a life insurance scam, hoodwink his widow, and dispose of the guy's children. Ten or fifteen pages would have been sufficient for that section, but instead it covers at least 100, most of it of the, "traveled from Chicago to Baltimore, checked into two different hotels under different names, didn't buy the poor girls new shoes, etc..." variety. It's as boring as it sounds from my summary. Worse yet, we then revisit that entire story when it all gets relived during Holmes' trial, which ends in his conviction for the murder of his henchmen, as part of a life insurance scam.
The author covered that section in so much detail for an obvious reason; he could just pluck it all from newspaper articles at the time, since there was extensive coverage of Holmes in the media of the day. Far, far less coverage is given to the castle itself, or Holmes' serial killing, and there's virtually nothing about why Holmes became what he was. We get one short childhood incident, lots of unsourced comments about his practicing torture on animals as a child, and then bang, he's being hung for one minor murder with almost no details about the bulk of his crimes. We know everything about a crime we don't much care about, and almost nothing about all of the crimes we wanted to learn about, and that's a definite flaw. I was skimming paragraphs and whole chapters by page 250 or so; bored with the irrelevant courtroom drama and wanting to get past his conviction for one life insurance scam murder, and on to more about his real crimes.
Basically this is a decent first draft of a book about H. H. Holmes, but it needs substantial editing to add detail about his castle and murders, needs to have at least 50 pages of redundant and boring reportage about his travels removed, and needs much more psychological analysis and discussion about Holmes and the society in which he lived.
My final, seldom-used non fiction scores:
Writing Quality: 5
Presents/Explains the Topic Clearly: 5
Entertainment Value: 4