Inside No. 9 series 3 episode 3 review: The Riddle Of The Sphinx

Inside No. 9 series 3 pays homage to Sleuth in a delightfully nasty, slippery story themed around cryptic crosswords…

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

This review contains spoilers.

3.3 The Riddle Of The Sphinx

With its single location, limited cast and playful, macabre twists, the 1972 film Sleuth starring Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine is a godfather of sorts to Inside No. 9. This week’s especially slippery episode pays homage to Anthony Shaffer’s warped story of revenge between two rivals in love.

Ad – content continues below

It’s the most complicated tale Inside No. 9 has ever spun. As co-creator Steve Pemberton told us at the series three press launch, “If you missed two sentences in a row, you’d be like ‘what?’ Even I was thinking how are people following this? It’s insane.”

Far from insane, it’s extremely well controlled. The half-hour has been constructed with the discipline of a cryptic crossword-setter. From the lightning flashes that punctuate hints and story shifts to the wordplay and in-jokes peppered through the script, The Riddle Of The Sphinx is impeccably precise.

Things start simply enough with a stormy night and a lone, hooded figure running across a Cambridge quad. The ‘number 9’ refers to the rooms of Nigel Squires, a Classics professor with a side line in setting the cryptic crossword for student paper Varsity. Alexandra Roach (Utopia, Hunderby) plays dumb as ‘Nina’ a townie after the answers to that week’s cryptic to impress her clever boyfriend.

Roach is terrific. She’s funny, likeable and endearingly crude as Nina, then captivating and clever when the charade drops. The odd couple dynamic of Nina and the erudite, pompous Prof. Squires—the sort of man who can’t stop himself from correcting references to ‘Chinese’ as a language or the proper past participle of ‘to hang’—is sprightly stuff. Squires is Professor Higgins to Nina’s Eliza Doolittle, an allusion made explicitly in the reference to George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion and Rex Harrison’s famous My Fair Lady line “By Jove, I think she’s got it!”

That’s not the limit of the references and in-jokes. Before Chekhov’s maxim on showing the audience a gun in act one of a play is quoted in the episode’s final moments, Squires tells Nina his pistol is a prop from a student production of The Seagull – a play featuring a famous Nina and a suicide by gunshot, written of course, by Anton Chekhov. (Not at all incidentally, the word ‘Nina’ is also the name used to refer to hidden messages in a crossword grid.)

And as a bonus in this early section, the audience also receives some practical instruction on how to solve cryptic clues. Inform, educate, entertain. Lord Reith would be proud.

Ad – content continues below

What follows is less Reithian, more Senacan. Recaps are usually superfluous to reviews, but in this case, the events bear setting down:

Nina reveals herself as the sister of a young man whose suicide was prompted by Squires discrediting his win at a crossword contest. Out for revenge, she poisons Squires with deadly puffer fish venom. Or at least she thinks she has – her tutor warned him of her plan so Squires swapped the cups, paralysing Nina. Said tutor—Tyler—arrives and pretends to be on Squires’ side before revealing himself as the father of twins Nina (really Charlotte) and dead Simon. Squires had an affair with Tyler’s wife years earlier and married her after they divorced and Tyler took Charlotte and Simon to Wales to raise them alone. Disregarding his daughter’s well-being, Tyler concocted a revenge plan themed around Squires’ crossword-setting pseudonym, The Sphinx. Threatening that he’ll frame Squires for Charlotte’s murder if he doesn’t go along with it, Tyler forces Squires to eat a sliver of her flesh in exchange for saving them both by giving her an antidote to the venom. Flesh eaten, Tyler reveals not only that there is no antidote but that he is not Charlotte and Simon’s real father – Squires is. As Charlotte asphyxiates on Squires’ office floor, he blows his brains out using a bullet provided by the deranged Tyler.

“Don’t take anything for granted” Squires told Nina eleven minutes in. You can say that again. This horrid tale of despicable men and unhinged plans is the slipperiest of creatures, and pulled off with utmost precision.

A second or third watch reveals intense attention to detail from the writers and director Guillem Morales, who continually draw our attention to the key props of the gun and the teacups. The camera follows Squires’ gun to his desk drawer and we’re kept aware of its presence thanks to Nina and Squires’ “If I’d shot you, here in the dark/With an empty gun? Good luck” exchange. Nina is shown drinking from the poisoned cup one of two times she admiringly calls Squires “devious” (a hint at her true feelings about him) and once again when she emphasises the word “plan”. While Squires is telling the story of the Sphinx and she seems to be gazing at the statue of it, she’s actually looking at the photograph of her brother on display directly below.

The thunder rolls and lightning strikes are used like italics too, highlighting telling phrases such as Squires’ reference to blood having been spilt. And as befitting cryptic crossword fans, Squires and Nina’s dialogue is full of wordplay. Declaring herself a marine biology student Nina asks “what’s the porpoise of that?” while Squires has fun describing her plan “to extract the poison from the poisson.”

Ad – content continues below

If you take on faith the unlikely notion that a mother and her new husband would have no contact with her children from a previous marriage, not even recognising them as adults, it’s damned ingenious. The story of Tyler’s hideous revenge against Squires unfolds like a Chinese puzzle box with concealed springs and sliding compartments operating smoothly behind the scenes.

Overall, I found The Riddle Of The Sphinx to be utterly twisted and utterly… Look, not alright. Disturbing suicide is yummy? (9)