Inside No. 9 – ‘The Riddle Of The Sphinx’

Series 3, Episode 3


You know when programmes do that “scenes which some viewers might find disturbing” thing before it starts? Well, don’t say you weren’t warned, they really meant it with this episode!

Don’t say you weren’t warned about spoilers either. From this point on, the post CONTAINS SPOILERS.

A young woman breaks into the university office of Professor Nigel Squires (Steve Pemberton). She gives her name as Nina Noonah (Alexandra Roach). Nina says that her boyfriend attends university and is obsessed with cryptic crosswords. She doesn’t understand them, and was hoping Squires could help her. He writes crosswords for the student newspaper under the name The Sphinx.

Squires says that a cryptic crossword clue is a clue and a riddle in one. He comes up with an example. 12 letters, the clue is “I teach wild creature without hospital building”. ‘Wild’ is an “anagram indicator”, a word that suggests other words can be rearranged. “I teach” and “creature” can be re-arranged, but that would have 14 letters, so “without hospital building” could mean “without A&E”, so take A and E from “creature” you are left with “I teach crture”, which can be rearranged as”architecture”. There’s a lot more of this sort of thing throughout the episode. I’ll just say before we go any further I’m not a fan of cryptic crosswords myself.

Anyway, Squires shows Nina tomorrow’s crossword and asks her to see if she can work it out. After they have some cups of tea and solve a few clues Squires begins coughing and sits down, stiff and still. Nina then solves a lot of clues herself, she is in fact excellent at crosswords. She then reveals her behaviour so far has been a ruse. She studies marine biology and got some tetrodotoxin from a puffer fish, which she put in his tea. It leads to paralysis, and it is the paralysis of the diaphragm that leads to death by asphyxiation.

Her motive is that her brother Simon got to the final of a crossword competition which he won, but Squires got his friends in the committee to disqualify Simon on a technicality. Simon committed suicide afterwards.

Squires however isn’t dead. He’s fine. He does more crossword clues which reveal a hidden message “I swapped cups”, so Nina drank the poisoned one. Nina then becomes paralysed and Squires says that her tutor Dr. Tyler told him about her plan. In a particularly unpleasant moment in the episode, Nina is now paralysed in a chair and unable to move at all, Squires puts his hand on her leg up under her skirt and kisses her, knowing she can’t do anything about it.

Dr. Jacob Tyler (Reece Shearsmith) enters. Squires says he wanted to “slip her one”. Urgh. Tyler says that she can still see, hear and feel everything, she just can’t move. He had told Squires he was bringing the antidote, but now he says there is none. She will need serious hospital treatment or she will be dead within half an hour. Squires is shocked, and wants Nina to go to hospital, but Tyler says he wants him to eat her!

Squires says he will call the police, but Tyler tells him that if so they will blame him, as the crossword that is about to be published for tomorrow’s student paper is full of clues pointing towards him murdering Nina.

Things get incredibly HORRIBLE and disgusting at this point, as Tyler cuts a bit of flesh from Nina and cooks it in a pan, and makes Squires eat it, otherwise he will let Nina die and make sure Squires goes to prison for her murder.

His motive for all this is revealed. Tyler and Squires were both students and roommates at the university. Tyler met Monica, they married and had twins. But Monica and Squires had an affair. Tyler and Monica divorced, Monica married Squires.

Tyler took the twins away and raised them himself. His son, Simon, became obsessed with crosswords and entered the competition, losing because Squires cheated. Simon was his son, and his daughter and Simon’s twin sister was Charlotte. Squires then realises that Charlotte and Nina are one and the same.

Charlotte and Tyler planned to kill Squires, but Tyler’s real plan was for Squires to kill Charlotte/Nina. The reason for this? Simon’s autopsy revealed he wasn’t Tyler’s son, he was Squires’, and therefore Charlotte was Squires’ daughter!

Charlotte is very nearly dead by this point and there is nothing that can be done to save her now. Tyler leaves a bullet for Squires, who puts it in a gun, puts the gun
in his mouth, pulls the trigger and his blood is splattered all over the crossword grid.

The Riddle Of The Sphinx name comes from Greek mythology, and the episode references it. As they point out, the Sphinx was a creature with the body of a lion and the head of a woman, and she guarded the gates of Thebes. She would give the visitor a riddle, and if people solved it they could go through, if not she would asphyxiate them and then eat them, much like how real lionesses kill their prey. However, nobody guessed the riddle correctly. Her famous riddle was “what creature walks on 4 legs in the morning, 2 at noon and 3 in the evening?”. The answer is “man”, as he crawls as a baby, walks as a man and needs a walking stick when he is old. Eventually, Oedipus encountered the Sphinx and he got the answer right. For this episode, Squires names himself after the Sphinx and that is why Tyler manipulates things so that the Sphinx asphyxiates and eats his victim. Simon also named himself Rex, after Oedipus Rex, and he would also have been the first person to beat the Sphinx had Squires not cheated.

Squires didn’t think he had any kids. Little did he know. His actions ended up killing both his son and his daughter, though he didn’t intend to. It is uncomfortable enough to watch with Squires leching over Nina, the fact that she turns out to be his own daughter makes an already awful moment even worse.

Tyler is psychopathic, calculating and evil. He was so consumed by desire for vengeance that he planned the death of someone who he for a long time he thought was his biological daughter and who he had raised. That’s twisted.

Nina/Charlotte is the most sympathetic character, but even she would have been happy if she’d succeeded in committing pre-meditated murder.

With only three characters, all of whom have obvious bad sides to them, it is a credit to the three actors how compelling they all were. Steve Pemberton managed to show there were a lot different sides to Squires. Reece Shearsmith was creepy and intense as Tyler. Alexandra Roach was impressive, especially as she had a lot of different things to do. Essentially she had to play two different characters (“Nina” and Charlotte) and towards the end she had to get across a lot when her character had to stay completely still and couldn’t even move her face much.

Nina is a meaningful name too, “nina” is a hidden word in a crossword puzzle, and there are plenty of those. The name comes from artist Al Hirschfeld who hid the name of his daughter Nina in his drawings if you’re wondering. I only know that because of a Simpsons episode when he’s one of the rejected artists to paint a portrait of Mr. Burns.

The episode ends with a nina, spelling out R.I.P N.H.S. Apparently this was accidental, and was only highlighted at the end to mean “R.I.P. Nigel Hector Squires” and was not meant to be a political statement, but it is very apt given the current government’s treatment of the National Health Service.

There were some funny lines again.

‘Nina’ talking about her “proper clever” boyfriend who has “a bike and scarf and all the Harry Potter shit”, and that she means cryptic crosswords, not “the quick ones you get with a picture of Vanessa Feltz in the middle of Chat magazine”. Also asking if a homophone is “An app for gays, like Grindr?”

Squires'”the poison from the poisson” was a good line too.

‘The Riddle Of The Sphinx’ is one of the darkest episodes of Inside No. 9 there has ever been. Oddly, you don’t think it is going to be at the beginning. There’s something almost cosy about the early scenes. Perhaps it’s because it’s centred around crosswords. Even all the classic old horror movie elements, thunderclaps, lightning, going into a spooky old building with a torch, seems very familiar. The tone is lot more humourous early on. That soon shifts when murder comes into it of course, and it just gets darker from there. It’s sort of like an abyss where it gets more and more horrifying the further you go.

The problem with this episode as a viewing experience is it seems maybe a little too disturbing. It’s not something you want to think too much about or watch again afterwards. But you have admire the writing, it is really good, really well written. Much as I’ve said I’m not a fan of cryptic crosswords, it is a testament to their writing talents that they managed to come up with one. The crossword itself appeared in The Guardian cryptic crossword section under the name Sphinx the day the episode was broadcast.

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3 Responses to Inside No. 9 – ‘The Riddle Of The Sphinx’

  1. GlassHouse says:

    of course NHS was intended…

  2. Myname says:

    Also why does she say Boris is the leader of the Tory’s in 2017 when he was elected in 2019

    • fused says:

      I suppose comedy shows sometimes “predict” things in that way, bit like The Simpsons ‘Bart To The Future’ episode which mentions Donald Trump being president years before it actually happened.

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