Beginning with a multi-layered introduction by Daniel Handler that apparently encompasses twelve of the book's thirteen chapters, the book is comprised largely of facsimile documents, such as old newspaper excerpts and letters. The book helps clear up some loose ends from the series, but it also introduces many more mysteries. It also elucidates details which readers might have missed - eg, in The Reptile Room, Uncle Monty takes Violet, Klaus and Sunny to see a movie, Zombies in the Snow written by Gustav Sebald. It turns out that the film is in fact coded with the Sebald Code, and contained a message warning Monty about Stephano, but Snicket states that he suspects Monty never learned the Sebald Code. Another one is shown, making it look like Count Olaf had burnt down the Baudelaire mansion.
It also raises many questions about the V.F.D. organization, which has been a mystery in the books since The Austere Academy. It gives some ideas about the members of V.F.D., including Uncle Monty (though he never learned Sebald Code), Aunt Josephine and her husband Ike, Hector, Lemony Snicket, his brother Jacques Snicket and sister Kit Snicket (referred to throughout merely as "K."). It also raises many questions as to what V.F.D. means, as it has many different things with the initials V.F.D. It also gives the reader the first look at the V.F.D. eye symbol, which is the one found on the ankles of Count Olaf and Jacques Snicket, and other V.F.D. members.
The book uses a mixture of new photography by Meredith Heuer and Julie Blattberg and 1930s photography gathered from an archive of photographs originally used for other purposes. All the photographs are in black-and-white.
The book includes a number of new anagrams which are identified as such by the index with the words "see also anagram" after each name. The names include:
1. Tony "Mommy" Eggmonteror: Author of The Mamba du Mal: A Snake That Will Never Kill Me, the book that Klaus read in The Reptile Room to prove that Uncle Monty's murder was not by the Mamba du Mal. The name is an anagram of Montgomery Montgomery (Dr. Montgomery's full name).
2. Monty Kensicle: Author of The Littlest Elf; his name is an anagram of Lemony Snicket.
3. Lena Pukalie: Author of I Lost Something at the Movies; an anagram of Pauline Kael.
4. Linda Rhaldeen: The "unknown playwright" who wrote the play The World Is Quiet Here. Her name is an anagram of Daniel Handler.
5. Shirley T. Sinoit-Pécer: winner of the Brooks-Gish Award for Best Actress as stated by Lemony Snicket on page 77 of the Unauthorized Autobiography (his newspaper column). He also notes that this person was suspected to be a man. "T. Sinoit-Pécer" is simply "receptionist" spelt backwards, and the name also refers to Count Olaf's disguise as a receptionist named Shirley (T. Sinoit-Pécer) in The Miserable Mill.
The U.S. hardcover edition of the book has printing on both sides of the dust jacket. While one side is the proper cover for the book, the other is one for a fictitious book called "The Pony Party!" by Loney M. Setnick (an anagram of Lemony Snicket). A reference to this is made in The Grim Grotto, when Quigley Quagmire uses the words "pony" and "party" in a telegram as part of a coded message.
There is a song named "The Little Snicket Lad" with lyrics and music in the book. The song is about Lemony Snicket's childhood. The tune is that of "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" (which is stated in The Grim Grotto to be Violet Baudelaire's least favorite song). In a postscript to the letter accompanying the song, Lemony Snicket notes that the music "is completely incorrect--the tune appears to be a well-known hymn of naval disaster."
A letter is included to Lemony Snicket from series illustrator Brett Helquist, and mentions that The Daily Punctilio printed stories implicating Lemony Snicket in the Quagmire fire, and are likely to do the same for the recent Baudelaire fire.
More details on the romance and break-up between Beatrice and Lemony Snicket are made. A letter from the Vineyard of Fragrant Drapes to Snicket is produced, alluding to the then-upcoming marriage between the pair, but it contains a coded message warning Snicket away. A near-replica of the same letter, with subtle differences (the vineyard being renamed as the Vineyard of Fragrant Grapes) is also included that refers to the marriage of Esmé and Jerome Squalor.
A theatrical review is given from The Daily Punctilio, by Lemony Snicket, of one of Al Funcoot's plays, in which it is once again made clear that such plays are used chiefly as vehicles for Olaf's plans (as in The Bad Beginning); ironically, the play was originally a V.F.D.-related play with many metafictional references to other material in the book. Snicket's negative review causes him to be forced out of his job by Punctilio editor Eleanora Poe; Snicket's replacement, reporter Geraldine Julienne, plays an important role in the book and the series writing inaccurate articles.
Throughout, Snicket connects the names of various famous real-life authors to V.F.D., and quotes from several supposedly V.F.D.-connected books, such as Charlotte's Web, and Ramona Quimby, Age 8, presumably as a tribute to these books by Snicket's creator, Daniel Handler.
In the letter from Vice Principal Nero, he states the names of a number of books, one or more of which was published in the 1980s, meaning that the series might take place sometime in the 1980s.