It's easy to go astray. Especially if you are a boy. There's that whole testosterone thing that makes you want to flex your muscles, race fast cars and smash things up. But sometimes those flexed muscles lead to bloody beatings, the fast cars to squealing tires and police sirens, and the smashing up to mob shakedowns, bank robbery and arson. And of course, to jail -- and worse. But as four new paperbacks demonstrate, there's always the possibility of redemption (or should I say, profit?) from one's misspent youth. You just may not live to reap the benefits.

Richard Marinick started out on the right path, as a Massachusetts state trooper with a lot of promise. But, as he writes in the forward to his debut novel, Boyos (Justin, Charles, $12.95), "My wife at the time had expensive tastes that I could not begin to satisfy," and his buddies from South Boston were getting rich on crime. The choice was obvious: He quit his job and signed on with Whitey Bulger's Irish mafia. And he made a lot of money -- until an armored car heist went wrong and he ended up in prison for 10 years. But now he's out and weaving his dark experiences into fiction. Boyos follows Jack "Wacko" Curran and his brother, Kevin, two Southie hoods trying to get out from under the thumb of the local crime boss. Needless to say, their bid for independence leads directly to bloodshed. Marinick's heroes are notably unlikable thugs on the make, and the brutal details speak uncomfortably to his own grim days on the wrong side of law.

Joe Loya could be Marinick's brother on the West Coast, but he tells a true tale in The Man Who Outgrew His Prison Cell: Confessions of a Bank Robber (Rayo, $12.95). Loya's life is a series of befores and afters: Before his mother died, he was a God-fearing kid who preached salvation in Los Angeles projects; afterward, he stabbed his abusive father in the neck and went on to rob more than 30 banks. Before a two-year stint in solitary confinement, he was an outlaw, vowing to "use my time in prison to jack my criminality up a notch or two"; afterward, he was a writer, corresponding with essayist Richard Rodriguez and performing in his own plays. Taking the words of 673-pound fellow prisoner Heavy D -- "The same thing that'll make you laugh will also make you cry" -- as his mantra, Loya has written a clear-eyed and at times beautifully phrased account of how a good boy became so bad.

Poor James Aitken (or was his name James Boswell or James Hill or James Hinde?) had no shot at redemption. As engrossingly chronicled by Jessica Warner in The Incendiary: The Misadventures of John the Painter, First Modern Terrorist (Thunder's Mouth, $15.95), this petty Scottish criminal took it upon himself to wage a one-man arson campaign against naval dockyards in England during the colonies' battle for independence. "The American Revolution appealed to many people on both sides of the Atlantic," writes Warner, "but it appealed to bored young men most of all." Aitken had shipped off to the colonies as an indentured servant only to return to England two years later, penniless but brimming with the "desire of accomplishing some great achievement." He fell far short. Although his attempts to burn down Portsmouth and Bristol panicked much of England, they affected the war effort not at all. Aitken was soon caught by a corrections officer and a haberdasher whose store he had attempted to burgle. Although the subsequent trial was a sensation, he was hanged and soon forgotten.

The next group of miscreants is remembered all too well. The inspiration of far too much pulpy entertainment, the Italian mobsters under John Dickie's microscope in Cosa Nostra: A History of the Sicilian Mafia (Palgrave Macmillan, $16.95) have long cultivated outsiders' tendencies to romanticize their supposed honor and loyalty. But Dickie demonstrates definitively that the centuries-old mafia has never been more than an illegal business and shadow state pursuing "power and money by cultivating the art of killing people." The veil was ripped away in the 1980s. Tommaso Buscetta, a mob boss whose two sons, brother, nephew, brother-in-law and son-in-law were slaughtered in a gang war, decided that he had had enough. He squealed. His testimony -- which, according to one investigating magistrate, essentially taught prosecutors a new criminal language -- led to guilty verdicts for 342 mafiosi. And Buscetta lived to die a natural death in 2000. Now, that's redemption.

-- Rachel Hartigan Shea

Mafioso Luciano Leggio