The Fox and the Flies: The World of Joseph Silver, Racketeer and Psychopath by Charles van Onselen - review by Sarah Wise

Sarah Wise

The Emperor of Vice

The Fox and the Flies: The World of Joseph Silver, Racketeer and Psychopath


Jonathan Cape 646pp £20 order from our bookshop

In 1978, the author of this book, an academic based in South Africa, first glimpsed the name Joseph Lis in a late-Victorian newspaper cutting. Lis (meaning ‘fox’), who later adopted the surname Silver, was a Polish-born pimp and sex-trafficker extraordinaire – a violent, syphilitic super-criminal, who during his thirty-year career had the police forces and attorneys of several cities in his pocket. Charles van Onselen has spent almost three decades hunting the Fox through the archives of four continents, and the result of his researches is a book that is profoundly unsettling, containing virtually no acts of kindness or decency. It catalogues crimes of relentless brutality and lifts many stones to reveal a subculture so squalid that reading The Fox and the Flies, you feel you want to take your brain out and scrub it.

‘White-slave trading’ was the melodramatic and inaccurate fin-de-siècle name for the trafficking of poor and/or vulnerable women to brothels in Continental Europe, the Americas, southern Africa and across Asia. To its perpetrators, women ranked only just above the animals – a non-hardy form of livestock to be traded, controlled, abandoned

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